As much as I bitched about not getting any decent candidates with a week to go in my search for a PhD student, I did get a couple good applications in the end. I have asked for reference letters from the list provided by my top candidate and have been surprised by what I got back. I have two out of three in hand and the first was sent to me less than an hour after I inquired. What I received was a three sentence email paragraph basically stating that the candidate was highly recommended, but little else. I got the second letter last night as an attachment, but the first and last paragraph used the wrong pronoun to refer to the candidate, whereas the middle two used the correct one. Ummmm, okay... How am I supposed to take that? The two middle paragraphs are a total of four sentences and indicate a high regard for the candidate, but how highly can you think of someone if you don't even take the time to read over you letter for them? Can I trust that someone really puts their "full and unreserved support" behind someone when they use the wrong pronoun to refer to them in the same sentence?
The mitigating factor here is that the candidate is from Europe and I don't know much about what would be expected as a reference there and whether it would be different from what North Americans might write. An additional complication is the language barrier, so the reference writers may truncate their comments if they have to write them in a non-native language. Is there something I am missing or did the candidate just pick lazy reference writers?