On offering up Grad School Recommendations

I was recently asked to provide a letter of recommendation to a past coworker who is trying to get in to grad school. The experience was excessively time-consuming, and left me with little belief that any of these schools are worth attending because their systems were (with one exception) all painful to use, and (with no exceptions) all looked like shit. If you can’t teach your students how to build a decent system for letting people upload recommendations, then how the @#$% can I expect you to teach anyone graduate level concepts? I know that some of the following schools are actually quite good, but they show no evidenced of it in the code they offer up for professors and professionals to use.

Carnegie Mellon

asked my to put my letter of recommendation on “a letterhead” in PDF or Word format. Seriously? WTF does “letterhead” even mean in the digital age? You want me to paste my company logo at the top? In the age of paper this had meaning. It proved you’d spent money going to a printer in support of your company / institution. It was an easy way to help confirm the reviewer actually worked at the company they claimed to. Now? Now, it doesn’t mean Jack.


form a) has a full page of documentation on how to upload a recommendation letter b) is completely teacher centric, as though no-one would every come with a recommendation from a the world of gasp business c) is a 3 page process. Forces me to “Please compare the applicant’s academic ability to that of other students.” which makes me either lie (because I’m a manager not a professor) or choose “I prefer not to answer”, which would raise flags if I was reviewing this recommendation. Also, they made me “sign” the form twice.

Stanford, Cornell, and University of Michigan

all use the system for managing your account, but each ask different questions in different ways.


mostly wanted me to prove I was a worthy reviewer and asked questions like “How many years have you evaluated people in this group?” and “Approximately how many people are in the group, totaled over those years?”


did a surprisingly good job of making it easy for me to give them info that would be helpful to their evaluations, like a quick rating on Academic Performance, Intellectual Potential, Creativity and originality, and Motivation for graduate study.

University of Michigan

had a similar form but with even better questions which would not only help judge him, but his potential usefulness to the school with the typical tasks a grad student is asked to perform.

Boston University Metropolitan College

only allows 10 characters for your title. I put “Tech Lead” because it sounds better than just “Manager”, but then at the bottom of the form I realized they meant Mr. / Mrs. / Dr. / etc. They don’t allow enough characters in the phone field to put in an international number with any formatting. They also make you agree to a typically large “Terms of Service”, which of course I didn’t read. They were, however, the first school that actually grasped the idea that people outside of academia might be providing reviews.


was the least painful, but very meh.

U Mass

let me know that “When entering your recommendation, please save your progress every 15 minutes, or changes may be lost.” which doesn’t speak highly of their computing department if they can’t keep their system from blowing up every 15 minutes, or figure out how to use that fancy “AJAX” technology that’s only been on the scene for 10+ years. They then ask me to fill in this sentence “I would rank this student in the top _____ % of approximately students I have taught in _____ years. And, of course, after filing it with “NA” it decided it didn’t like it (when I attempted to upload a PDF ?!?!), so I put my cursor in a field and used the delete key, which took me to the prior page, and when I went forward again it lost all my data, just like the form promised. So, I ranked him in the top 100% of the 0 students I’ve taught in the past 20 years. They also asked me for my “Title” but after the last one I have no clue what they meant.

After finally managing to upload the PDF it suggested I click the “View” button to make sure it looks correct. So I did, and the browser promptly blocked their Pop-Up window. Pop-Up blockers have been shipped on by default in browsers for how many years now? If their recommendation form is any indication U Mass is an absolutely shitty place to study computer science.

University of Southern California’s

process is relatively painless, and gathers some useful info, but also allows you to upload your review in “.jpg, .pict, .gif, .bmp, .tif or .png format” in addition to normal text things… which is somewhat disturbing.