What Is the Title Of This Post?

I am filling out an online recommendation form for a student who is applying to graduate school at Berkeley. One of the questions is: “Rate the applicant in comparison to others you have known in a similar capacity.” My choices are:

(This is an actual screen capture from the actual form.)

Unless I select one of the options, I am unable to submit the form.

I find myself at a loss for snarky words. What ought to have been the title of this post?

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39 Responses to “What Is the Title Of This Post?”


  1. 1 1 Raymond Rundelli

    Title should have been “None of the above”.

  2. 2 2 Steve Reilly

    Rate This Post

    Frankly, I can’t decide if it’s the best this year or the best ever.

  3. 3 3 Ken B

    Candide Applies for College

  4. 4 4 nobody.really

    Eh. I surmise that Berkley wants to impose a budget constraint on profs writing letters of recommendation. Unless you can say that a candidate was at least the best student you had that year, they don’t want to hear from you about that candidate.

    This strikes me as a reasonable effort to screen applicants and a reasonable effort to control the supply of recommendations, thereby limiting “recommendation inflation.” Where’s the beef?

  5. 5 5 Neil

    Lake Wobegon University–all our applicants are the best.

  6. 6 6 Andrew

    I think it doesn’t so much limit praise inflation as codify it. It seems that everyone describes their students as outstanding, such that “good” is code for “terrible”. This question is a tacit acknowledgment of the fiction of recommendation letters.

  7. 7 7 Jonathan Kariv

    @nobody.really: Might be reasonable but this would suck for someone in the same class as (insert fields medalist/nobel laurette here).

  8. 8 8 Mark Draughn

    I’ll go with “None of the Above.” Now that I’ve got that out of the way, tell us how you answered this, dammit. The suspense is killing me!

  9. 9 9 Steve S

    “The Cult of Self-Esteem Run Amok”?

    You all get trophies AND a blue ribbon! Hooray!

  10. 10 10 Eric Nilsson

    Using part of Mark Draughn’s answer, how about: “How would you answer this?”

  11. 11 11 norm

    “Inflation is sometimes not a monetary phenomenon”

  12. 12 12 Steve Landsburg

    norm: I like this one!

  13. 13 13 Fonzy Shazam

    norm’s might be best. I also like “None of the Above”.

    My suggestion: “Worst Question Ever”.

    Perhaps the survey is making a larger point about the “tragedy” of too much (false) choice in our free market society. Or maybe their motto is “Berkeley, where only the Best apply”.

  14. 14 14 nobody.really

    I think it doesn’t so much limit praise inflation as codify it. It seems that everyone describes their students as outstanding, such that “good” is code for “terrible”. This question is a tacit acknowledgment of the fiction of recommendation letters.

    I’m not persuaded. If Berkley merely required the recommender to pick between “Super Duper” and “Boffo,” I’d agree. But the statement “best” is not merely a superlative; the recommender can identify only one candidate per label: “Best, ” “Best in 10 Years,” “Best in 5 Years,” and “Best This Year.” Moreover, there seems to be a pretty clear hierarchy among these labels.

    Arguably the problem with the Berkley system does not arise from Berkley’s system per se, but from the nature of letters of recommendation. The letters take the form of a free consulting service provided by a disinterested recommender to an admissions officer, colleague to colleague. But in practice, recommendations tend to be a form of advocacy for a specific candidate. Because the recommender has an agenda that is not necessarily consistent with the agenda of Berkley admissions office, we know that the recommender may not honor the intent of the restrictions implied by Berkley’s forms.

    It can be hard to get people to honor both the letter and the spirit of your rules. I recall when a law was being drafted to assess a fine on a kind of pollution. The polluters asked to change the draft by imposing fines only on parties that polluted intentionally. But the drafter’s response suggested that the need to make a finding of intentional misconduct might not create the limitation the polluters were intending: “If you pollute, we’ll make you pay the fine. If you insist, we’ll impugn your character while we’re at it — but really, we’re only trying to impose a fine.”

    Might be reasonable but this would suck for someone in the same class as (insert fields medalist/nobel laurette here).

    Yup; that’s the nature of screening criteria generally.

    Indeed, paler versions of this problem arise in a variety of circumstances. Can you compare two candidates based on class rank or curve-based grades if those candidates didn’t attend the same classes – or even the same school? Do you become less qualified simply because you attended school with prodigies, or become less qualified because you attended school with idiots? Indeed, probably the opposite is true. Yet people judge you on the extent to which you differ from your peers – for better and worse.

  15. 15 15 David Wallin

    Ah, but Berkeley can now report they only admit the best. And, you can give the student the lowest rank possible with less fear they could sue you, since you did call them the “best this year.”
    Having read a lot of questionnaires as part of IRB service, I am often amazed at the number of times the choices are not mutually exclusive and complete. One of my favoritea are those who force imagine a belief in economic freedom and social fredooms must be constrained in the left/right world where you embrace freedom in only one or semi-freedom in both.

  16. 16 16 David

    Am I the Best or What?

  17. 17 17 David

    All students are best, but some students are bester than others.

  18. 18 18 Scott H.

    e.) Better than other applicants labeled “best”
    f.) Almost better than I can imagine
    g.) Better than I can imagine
    h.) Better than Berkeley can imagine

  19. 19 19 AP

    What if you had a student last name of “Best”. Clearly he was Best ten years ago and will continue to be so for ten years in the future.

    Unless he dies from awesomeness that is

  20. 20 20 Finesse Cool

    “Because the recommender has an agenda that is not necessarily consistent with the agenda of Berkley admissions office, we know that the recommender may not honor the intent of the restrictions implied by Berkley’s forms.”

    Or, in short: the questionnaire exists to align both the recommender’s, and the admission office’s goals.

  21. 21 21 Harold

    I hope this was compiled by a person with a sense of humor, it cannot possible have been meant seriously. What happens if two of your students apply in the same year? It does not ask what they are best at, so you could honestly answer best (at being late) in 10 years, for example.

  22. 22 22 nobody.really

    It does not ask what they are best at, so you could honestly answer best (at being late) in 10 years, for example.

    One of my profs had a nationwide reputation for honesty, so I asked him to write me a letter of recommendation for an internship. He said that he liked my classroom participation, and like me, but he couldn’t overlook the fact that I was perhaps the laziest student he’d ever had. Fortunately for me, his letter simply said, “I’ve had this young man in my classes for many years, and I can honestly say that you’d be lucky to get him to work for you.”

  23. 23 23 Tom

    Too bad you could not choose, “Best of the best of the best, with honors.”

  24. 24 24 Scott H.

    or…

    e.) Best ever and for the next 10 years (projected)
    f.) Best ever and for the next 25 years (projected)
    g.) Best ever now and forever (projected)
    h.) Best ever now and forever (guaranteed)

  25. 25 25 Finesse Cool

    @ Tom

    “Boy, Captain America over here! “Best of the best of the best, sir!” “With honors.” Yeah, he’s just really excited and he has no clue why we’re here.”

  26. 26 26 SheetWise

    Games You Can’t Lose
    Games I Can’t Win

  27. 27 27 iceman

    Damn We’re Good
    Superiority Complex

  28. 28 28 Jimbino

    “Too Good for Berkeley”

    That’s exactly how I responded when I found out they’d lost 20 pages of my application materials in the Sproul Hall takeover.

  29. 29 29 Eduardo

    Hobson’s Choice

  30. 30 30 SheetWise

    The selections are ordered from least flattering to most flattering, so you can answer as if you’re grading on a scale of 1 to 4. I assume they’ll understand.

  31. 31 31 Bob

    Skew you.

    or

    The 1%?

  32. 32 32 Gene Hayward

    “It was the best of times, it was the, well, best of times”…

  33. 33 33 Will A

    “It’s better to be a kind of smart fish in a non-competitive pond”

    Appalachian State tuition $ 1576. Improving your chance of getting into Berkeley by being ranked the best by an Appalachian State professor, “Priceless”.

  34. 34 34 stephen jacobs

    No one could do a better job.

  35. 35 35 Paul Mollon

    Hobson’s Choice – Straight Up With a Twist

  36. 36 36 native

    Arthur Goldberger wrote a rec for me for the U of Wisconsin political science graduate program in the 1990s. He showed me the form and asked, “What in the world is this?” I grinned and said “Just circle “superior”.

    The question was “Please evaluate the student’s native intelligence.”

    Goldberger ignored my suggestion and blurted, “Evaluate native intelligence? Are they kidding? They’re going to get a letter about this.”

    (I wasn’t accepted)

  37. 37 37 Bill

    False Choice Fallacy

  38. 38 38 Tom Burk

    This post and especially the comments have hooked me on this website. I’m at work and literally laughing out loud at some of your great comments. Ken B, Neil, Andrew, Steve S, nobody.really, David Wallin, Tom, Eduardo, Bill, SheetWise, Gene Hayward, David, and especially Scott H. – you guys rock.

    This thread is great – fun to read and with great wisdom too.

  39. 39 39 Dave (ignerint)

    Title of Post:

    A) “Being PC on my PC!” (Berkeley would like that – no one loses, there are only winners in this competition!)
    B) “Darwin’s Choicest” (as opposed to one of my favorites, above, “Hobson’s Choice…..”)
    C) “To know thyself is the ultimate form of aggression”

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