It is the first week of the new year, and I already got three student requests for recommendation letters. Writing recommendation letters is an important duty of a professor, but writing letters for students who took exactly one course with with me ten years ago is stretching this duty. Thankfully, chat AIs can help–or can they? Let’s try first.
Please write a recommendation letter for a student of mine. Their name is Tony Crawallo. I'm a professor of computer science and my name is Lazy Carpetbagger. The student was a master student of computer science five years ago.
This sets the context. Next up is the course.
The name of the course was "revitalizing the blue hightower". The student got an average grade. They participated actively in the course but I have no particular memory of them beyond this.
Finally, how to write a letter depends on who will read it. When I say average, I mean average, but elsewhere average may be “most excellent among folks that are most excellent where a few are more most excellent than other most excellent folks”.
The student is applying for a summer internship at University of Podunk, in Podunk State, United States. Please write the letter aligned with the expectations of the recipient.
Finally, I prefer not to upset my future boss.
With this, we have a complete prompt for a chat AI. Here’s what Chat GPT 3.5 (the free version) makes of it 2024-01-16.
To whom it may concern,
I am writing to wholeheartedly recommend Mr. Tony Crawallo for consideration in your summer internship program at the University of Podunk. I had the pleasure of instructing Tony five years ago when he pursued his Master’s degree in Computer Science at our esteemed institution.
Tony enrolled in the course titled “Revitalizing the Blue Hightower,” where he demonstrated a commendable level of commitment and enthusiasm for the subject matter.
Throughout the semester, he actively participated in class discussions, contributing his insights to the overall learning environment. While Tony earned an average grade in the course, his dedication and engagement in class were evident, showcasing his genuine interest in the field of computer science.
As the course transpired five years ago, my recollection of individual students may not be as vivid. However, I can attest to Tony’s consistent attendance, timely completion of assignments, and positive collaboration with fellow students. Though I don’t have specific standout memories of Tony, his overall conduct and participation left a favorable impression.
Given the nature of the internship at the University of Podunk, I believe Tony’s foundational knowledge and active involvement in our course would contribute positively to the responsibilities he may undertake during the internship. The practical experience gained through this opportunity would undoubtedly complement his academic background and further enhance his skills in the field.
I am confident that Tony Crawallo will approach this internship with the same level of dedication and enthusiasm he demonstrated during his time as my student. I highly recommend him for this position and believe he has the potential to make valuable contributions to your institution.
Should you require any additional information or clarification, please do not hesitate to contact me. Thank you for considering Tony Crawallo for this internship, and I am certain he will prove to be a valuable asset to your team.
I find a couple of things noteworthy about this letter:
- Tony, of course, is male, no questions asked; probably white too.
- Surprisingly, the AI uses the word average without adjusting it to expectations. In real recommendation letters I wrote with the AI I only ever saw “excellent”; I suspect that the AI has no information about U of Podunk, and hence did not calibrate the writing (too much).
- The AI didn’t ask about U of Podunk. It just accepted it. I may not know about this fake recipient’s expectations, but nor does the AI. Which implies that indeed in those other real letters to real institutions, language was badly inflated.
Do I feel bad about using a chat AI for writing recommendation letters?
I wouldn’t use a chat AI for writing recommendation letters for people I know well (e.g. my Ph.D. students for who I’d spend considerable time crafting appropriate letters). But for Bachelor or Master’s students who I may barely remember, I think this is a reasonable solution.