I have been reminded a couple of times in recent weeks that one side benefit to writing letters of recommendation for students who are trying to get funding from the university or from outside sources so that they do not have to be teaching assistants is that you learn a lot about what they have been up to - e.g. learning other languages - or about their backgrounds - e.g. founding an NGO as an undergraduate - that they otherwise neglect to tell you.
Given that writing letters of recommendation (and filling out the associated forms that require guessing how much everyone else who is filling out the form is inflating their ratings of their students, so that you inflate by just the right amount to keep the overall ranking consistent with underlying student performance) has no other direct faculty payoff, it is good that it plays this indirect informational role.
Who was my favorite student this term?
5 months ago