Student requests for recommendations

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Visiting ass't. prof.:
Background information:  I'm at an institution where I teach only undergraduates.  My department is English.

Most of the recommendations I've written thus far in my career have been strong ones, namely because when a student makes choices about which professors s/he approaches to write letters, s/he -- presumably -- would choose those who have seen their best work in their assignments and overall classroom presence.  On occasion, I've had fairly average students approach me for letters, and I've always tried my best to highlight their strengths even as I write about them in an honest way.

I'm posing this as a "preemptive" call for help as this situation hasn't arisen, yet, but I fear it will.  One of the students I have this semester is pretty unexceptional. Her analytical skills are substantially below that of the average first-year student at this institution. She often falls behind on her work and misses class. I try to be flexible about these issues because she has health problems. In addition, her maturity level has some catching up to do. She tells me that out of all of her courses, she's doing the best in mine which is a problem because she currently has a C+ average in my course.

Since she has stated that she's doing the best in my course, I am afraid she will ask me to write a letter for her. What do I do in this situation? What do you all do when weak students ask for recommendations?

I have stated the following to a student:

If I were to write the letter of recommendation, I would need to mention that you received a C in my course, so it may not be the strongest of letters. I suggest that you have the letter written by someone who is better acquainted with all of your positive qualities and can refer to them in the letter.

If the student continued to insist that I write them a letter of recommendation, I would state that I was not comfortable doing so.  One of my colleagues wrote a letter of recommendation listing both positive and negative characteristics of a student. The graduate program acceptance committee, which included some of her colleagues, saw the letter as a poor reflection of my colleague. They even questioned her motives in writing the letter. I would not recommend writing a letter for the student.

Somewhat related: May I suggest the following filter for letters of recommendation?

I always ask for a copy of the transcript and the personal statement they're going to submit with whatever the letter is for.  I tell them that I want to see their personal statement (a draft is just fine!)  so that what I say is in agreement with what they're saying about themselves.  ("I wouldn't want to tell the committee that you've wanted to be a vet since your first quarter here, if you're telling them that you just realized that you wanted to be a vet last week!")

It cuts back on my letter load a little bit by causing students to only get letters for things they're "really" going to apply for.  Nothing is more annoying than sweating over a letter, only to hear later that the student decided not to apply!

ABD Candidate:

You didn't indicate what the recommendation is for -- graduate school or a job after graduation? That could make a difference in what you could/should say about this person's potential.  If it is the latter and she presses you for a recommendation, perhaps you can comment on her ability to get along with others, teamwork skills, and the like. If your recommendation is likely to be a negative one, then I think you should not write a letter for her. Perhaps the best thing this student could get from you would be your explanation of why she is not getting a recommendation. It is okay to get a dose of reality now and then, but hopefully it is accomplished with gentleness and tact. You mention that she has health problems and that could account for missed classes. But maybe there are things in her control that she could do to be a better student, such as taking fewer courses so the demands of college are not so heavy, while she deals with her health. Just guessing here. Maybe her advisor is unsupportive?

If she is an undergraduate, shouldn't this student seek out her advisor for a recommendation?  If she needs more than one, then she should also be asking current or former employers too. This should let you off the hook.
Good luck. I know this probably feels like an awkward situation.

I include a section on recommendations in each of my syllabi.  I tell students there that my letters can only be as strong as their performance in my class and ask them to provide me with personal statements (if they have to write these) or a short paragraph telling me about the award/position/scholarship they're applying for.  I ask them for 2 weeks notice, envelopes with stamps, and say upfront that, while there may be exceptions,  I generally do not write letters for students who receive less than a B+ in my courses.


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