The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Dear Admissions Committee

November 28, 2011

Inspired by the post below on the broken letter of recommendation system, I began to think about the difference between what I write and what I mean. Here are the results. Please fill in your own personal favorite euphemisms below.


Dear Admissions Committee,

I am delighted to write a letter of recommendation for Nicolette Mediocrides, who was a student in my class on international relations in Fall 2009. Nicolette was a very good student, receiving a B+. She was particularly involved in class discussion, frequently posing trenchant questions about the class material.

Nicolette is applying to both law school and programs in health policy. I am combining these letters because I believe that this ambition shows her multifaceted interests. I believe that Nicolette will excel in either. Her ability to secure a prestigious unpaid internship shows the drive necessary to be a successful lawyer. She has also dedicated time to read to underprivileged children at the local library, which shows the caring we need in the health profession. Nicolette also has a diverse background and will bring significant international experience to your campus.

I believe that she will be a fantastic addition to your program. If you have any other questions, please feel free to contact me.


Brian C. Rathbun


Dear Admissions Committee,

Can we be honest? Nicolette Mediocrides has asked me to write a letter of recommendation. She was a student in my class on international relations in Fall 2009. I found her in my Excel spreadsheet of grades. She appears to have gotten a B+ in my course, which is pretty good but she is not going to win a Nobel Prize or anything. Don’t get your hopes up. I do in fact remember her face, so that probably means she was at least somewhat engaged. I forget the ones who don’t participate. Still, I don’t have detailed notes or anything. I don’t know why she chose me except that a perusal of her transcript suggests that my course was one of her higher marks. Or it could be that all of the other professors are meaner.

Nicolette is applying to both law school and programs in health policy because she has no job after graduation and frankly no earthly idea what she wants to do. But really, who does at this point? – only the really annoying Tracy Flick-esque ones. I am writing this joint letter because I really don’t have the mental faculties to keep track of all the various permutations. Nicolette has significant experience with the Xerox 2027 copier from her internship at the County Sheriff in her home town. She had to go home for the summer because she couldn’t afford to live unpaid in Washington, DC, unlike 90% of your applicants. She seems like a nice girl – I noticed she has lots of pictures of kitties on her notebook when she came to ask for a recommendation. Nicolette has an ethnic background. She is from a large Greek family and has visited her grandparents for summers for a couple of years. Do we still count the Greeks as ethnic? Do we still use the word – ‘ethnic’?

Still, I do recommend her for your MA program. Yeah, I don’t know her so well, but no one else knows the students they are recommending either. And really, none of this forms an informed basis for a decision on your part. You know that; I know that. It is just a roll of the dice. I am not so sure I would recommend your program to her, in which she will take two to three more years of advanced undergraduate classes that give her no more practical knowledge of her chosen field than the last four years, all with a six-figure price tag. But it is you that has to sleep at night. And I didn’t say anything to her. Your secret is safe!


Brat H. Bun

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Rathbun is a professor of International Relations at USC. Brian Rathbun received his Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of California, Berkeley in 2002 and has taught at USC since 2008. He has written four solo-authored books, on humanitarian intervention, multilateral institution building, diplomacy and rationality. His articles have appeared or are forthcoming in International Organization, International Security, World Politics, International Studies Quartlery, the Journal of Politics, Security Studies, the European Journal of International Relations, International Theory, and the Journal of Conflict Resolution among others. He is the recipient of the 2009 USC Parents Association Teaching and Mentoring Award. In 2019 he will be recognized as a Distinguished Scholar by the Diplomatic Studies Section of the International Studies Association.