by Prof. Moses Ochonu
Let’s discuss how Nigerians unintentionally–or as a compatriot told me recently, intentionally–sabotage other Nigerians’ chances of upward socioeconomic and educational mobility.
A talented Nigerian student/graduate is applying to a graduate program in Euro-America and asks her current or former lecturers to write her the required recommendation letters. Some of the lecturers don’t even bother to write the letter. The applicant has to chase them down and plead. Sometimes they have to travel from one part of the country to the other to plead in person as phone calls, texts, and emails don’t work with the lecturers.
It’s as though the lecturers don’t want to support the applicant’s foreign educational aspirations. It’s part of their job, but lecturers act as if they’re doing their current and former students a favor by writing these letters. Many applicants have missed critical application deadlines because of this attitude.
The ones who agree to write the letter take the most cavalier attitude to it. They write unusably perfunctory nonsense such as “Ms so and so was a student in our department; she was a well behaved student; she worked hard and performed well in her classes; she has a good character and is very respectful; her academic record is okay.”
Far from helping the applicant’s chances, this type of letter actually damages and puts her at a disadvantage in relation to her fellow applicants. I should know, since I’ve served on both graduate admissions and fellowship and grant committees many times.
Where to begin? First of all such a letter says nothing, absolutely nothing, about the applicant’s intellectual abilities, unique academic skills, or the specificities of their academic record. It is too general to be useful. It does not offer any insight into the lecturer’s academic/intellectual relationship with the applicant, so why should we take the letter writer seriously as someone who can vouch for the applicant?
There is no mention of classes the applicant took with the lecturer, how they did in such classes, how they stood out, what they did to impress the lecturer, why the lecturer believes the applicant would thrive and blossom in the graduate program, etc.
There is no praise, no enthusiasm–only bland, lukewarm, generic comments. It’s better not to write a recommendation than to write one that does not endorse the applicant or highlight her intellectual promise and quality.
Then there is the issue of brevity. Some of these letters that I’ve seen are one paragraph or at most two–too sketchy to offer any substantive glimpse into the applicant’s abilities or give one a sense of the applicant’s unique talents and intellectual drive.
Finally, there is the annoyingly meaningless deployment of Nigerian idiosyncrasies and cliches. When a Nigerian lecturer writes “hardworking,” the North American evaluators of the applicant’s materials read it as “mediocre.” When the evaluators see a word such as “solid,” they don’t think it indicates excellence, as it might in Nigeria. In popular and even professional Nigerian usage, “okay” means good. Not so in the North American educational parlance. It does not mean good. Rather, it denotes bad or mediocre. Saying someone is “okay” indicates reservation, that the letter writer is holding back outright praise because the applicant does not deserve it.
And nobody wants to know or cares about the applicant’s personal character, so commenting on how well behaved or respectful she is is an unhelpful digression at best and at worst a damaging indication that you have nothing substantive or glowing to say about her academic abilities and intellectual talent. What has the applicant being “kind” got to do with her ability to undertake graduate work, cope with its rigors, and do well?
I don’t know whether it is laziness on the part of the lecturers or a lack of awareness about Western higher educational conventions. I suppose it’s a mix of the two.
Whatever it is, these lecturers are destroying the chances and prospects of talented Nigerian applicants, who lose out of opportunities because their former or current teachers write non-recommendation recommendation letters on their behalf.
I’ve lived and worked in America long enough to know that, in making admission and other decisions, no evaluator will ignore a sketchy, general, and lukewarm endorsement from a person who purportedly knows and has taught and mentored the applicant–the recommender. If the recommending lecturer doesn’t sound so enthusiastic about the applicant, why should I? That’s the general attitude.
Ignorance of what is expected in the letter is no excuse. I’ve even seen such a letter which was written by a Nigeria-based lecturer who studied in the US and is thus aware of how critical recommendation letters are and how they should be written. This lends credence to the theory that some of this could be intentional sabotage on the part of some recommending lecturers.
It is sometimes so sad and frustrating for folks like me to read recommendation letters from North American professors saying that such and such applicant is a reincarnation of Albert Einstein and Jacques Derrida in one flesh and then to read a meaningless three-sentence recommendation letter from a Nigerian lecturer about a Nigerian applicant you know is much more talented than the North American applicant whose abilities and talents are being advanced in highfalutin, exaggerated terms.
The interesting thing is that I read recommendation letters written by academics in other countries for other international applicants and they conform for the most part to the North American convention of high praise and substantive commentary on the applicant, her accomplishments, and her ongoing work.
We’re cheating ourselves and putting ourselves at a disadvantage in a globalized, hyper-competitive world.