“The best recommendations have a lot of verbs”

Via Tyler Cowen, an author from the Wall Street Journal interviewed the head of admissions at the Harvard Business School. The whole article is good, but this particular line stood out:

The best recommendations have a lot of verbs. They say, "She did this," versus adjectives that simply describe you.

I remember in 5th grade that we had to write Show Not Tell stories. The idea was to get out of the habit of writing "Kyle is in 3rd grade and he is really kind" - style stories and instead writing "When Joey's mom couldn't pick him up, Kyle walked him all the way home, even though it was two miles in the wrong direction."

I don't know why later teachers dropped the Show Not Tell agenda from the curriculum, but apparently people still write in this style. Maybe recommenders are lazy and it's easier to write "Shannon is a hard worker" than it is to come up with a concrete example. Maybe the recommender doesn't know the student very well, which is discussed in the article, and a problem.

The other possibility is that the person being recommended hasn't done anything interesting. It's easy to tell, because if you have done things, people tend to mention them when they're introducing you to someone, like "This is Jeff. Jeff wrote the entire billing system." You can also tell because the bullet points on your resume will have really bland verbs in them that don't really say anything, like "Developed marketing skills" or "Monitored social analytics tools for Company X".

One day you are going to have to wake up and decide to be Someone that Does Things. The World of Doing can be scary at first because there are lots of things that need to be done and no one is there to tell you how to do them.

So: what verbs to people use to describe you? Which of the versions below would you rather someone used to describe you?

  • "He's really good at finding tips and tricks to save time."

  • "He built a replacement for the school's calendar system and got 550 people to sign up."


  • "She is a really fierce competitor."
  • "She won the regional finals for her team by making free throws and getting a key steal in the final minutes."


  • "She's a hard worker."
  • "She rewrote the website to make it 100% faster, which boosted signups by 50%."


  • "His code is always reliable."
  • "While he was in charge, the API was down for a total of three minutes in two years."

Related: See Be Specific at Less Wrong.

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