Source: Fast Company, Feb 2020
We’ve examined 2,206 letters written on behalf of applicants for academic positions on various standard linguistic dimensions. Those include words that signal positive or negative tone; notable, standout terms such as “outstanding;” grindstone terms that denote commitment like “hard-working”; and phrases that raise doubt, such as “I will leave to others to comment on X’s research.”
there is a surefire way to identify applicants for whom writers have the greatest enthusiasm.
‘STANDOUT’ VS. ‘GRINDSTONE’ TERMS
It turns out that only 20-25% of letters describe applicants as outstanding.
They do this by invoking the linguistic terms mentioned above: standout terms or phrases, such as “unparalleled,” “one of the best I have worked with,” “incredible,” “fantastic,” “prodigy,” “unrivaled,” “outstanding,” “rising star,” “as good or better than” (a well-known person), “amazing,” and others.
Despite the general inflation of recommendation letters, many studies have shown that only the top quarter (at most) of letters contain standout terms/phrases. The rest are laden with grindstone terms such as hard-working, careful, good, knowledgeable and more.
Granted some employers may want to hire grindstone employees. However, when there is a need to identify the very best applicant, then I offer the following suggestion: Look for standout terms. When the goal is to choose an applicant who is well above average, those depicted only as good are frequently only average.
If writers were provided with adjective checklists, it would be evident whom they viewed as the strongest candidates because they’d check more of the standout than grindstone words. So they could check any of the following CAPITALIZED adjectives that they believe apply to the candidate:
OUTSTANDING, good, AMAZING, very knowledgeable, UNRIVALED, solid, super careful, FABULOUS, diligent, PRODIGY, hard-working, FANTASTIC.
In my humble opinion, I believe the development of this checklist represents the most outstanding, amazing and unrivaled method to identify the best candidates.