Writing/not writing recommendations

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We've probably all had the experience of having a less-than-stellar, or even mediocre, student request a letter of recommendation. Some of my colleagues decline to write for students they cannot be overwhelmingly positive about, but I also think that even below-average students are entitled to have letters written, so long as we're honest about them.

What do you do when students like these approach you for a rec? I generally ask them if there's someone else who knows them better, has known them for longer, etc., and if there is absolutely no one else, I'll write for them.

What's the purpose of the letter? If it's to get into graduate school, I usually tell such a student that they didn't do too well in my class, for example, and that I will mention their rank, and also talk about their strenghts, but if they have someone else who might write a stronger letter, they might want to go to them.

I don't usually hem and haw about it, but I'm honest about what I will/won't write. If it's for a job, same thing goes. I'll talk to the student about how I view their abilities, scholarship, etc., and if they're fine with it, so am I.

Unfortunately, in my field there's such a shortage that a letter one way or another doesn't influence the outcome too much (at least for the job market).

A colleague of mine was asked by a student for a letter of recommendation for graduate school. The colleague had to choose between writing a letter that mentioned many strengths while pointing out a weakness -- the studentís immature behavior -- or not writing the letter at all. The person went out of their way to praise the studentís strengths and then mention the weakness.

The personís colleague at a college that received the letter stated that the committee viewed the letter as very unusual and very negative. They seemed to have discounted the strengths mentioned in the letter. Although I think letter writers should be able to freely mention strengths and weaknesses that students have, the reality is that letters that are not overwhelming positive are often considered to be negative letters.

Apparently most faculty members are deciding to either write a very positive letter or to decline to write one at all. You may be doing a student a disservice by agreeing to write them a mediocre letter.

Brent Chesley:
I agree with B.F. Recommendation letters are treated like an on/off switch. People who receive such letters expect them to praise the student as an absolutely grand human being.  Anything less is unacceptable. If the letter seems lukewarm, the reader may dismiss the candidate as a failure since his/her letter doesn't fit the model. If the letter mentions a fault, the candidate doesn't have a chance.

The inflation of recommendations has transformed them into something absurd, but they are a part of the hiring/admissions process. When a student whom I cannot praise at length requests a letter, I look the person in the eye and say gently, "You need to have letters written by people who are better acquainted with all of your positive qualities." A number of students thank me at this point and go in search of other recommenders. Some are upset, but I tell them that recommendations are like on/off switches. I've never had a student push me beyond that point.

Turning down requests isn't easy, but it is the best thing that I can do for these people.

I just want to point out regarding the recommendation-letter issue how often I hear faculty complain about their students, but how little they seem to do about it. If faculty members have not enough spine to tell a student during the semester to quit acting up in class or to improve work because they want good student evaluations, why are so many faculty surprised that the students paying obscene tuition bills believe a good letter to be a virtual entitlement?


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