Reference for problem student

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A student of mine recently asked me to write a recommendation for him for graduate school. I have had him in at least one class for the last four semesters. Frankly, his performance has been uneven: he is clearly very smart, but the work he did in my courses was generally subpar. By subpar, I mean, poorly written, handed in late, incomplete citation/bibliographies, and he often did not incorporate suggestions I had made for improvement on drafts of papers (he usually ignored my suggestions completely in fact). He is writing a capstone paper for me right now: all majors are required to write this paper in order to graduate. I just read the draft. It is not very good.

My question is, should I simply write the recommendation honestly? Or should I tell him to find someone else to do it, since his work has been so uneven with me?


When I write a recommendation for a student I've had in class, I note the grade and usually the relative standing in the course.  For example, Mr./Ms. Jones received an A in Basketweaving, making him/her one of the top 10 percent in the class.  Of course, I also note other characteristics, like the student is motivated, serious, creative, and so on.

Here's a thought:  You tell your student to re-write the capstone paper to A level, and you'll explain how he's developed and improved in your recommendation.  (Thus, he needs to show you that he is really ready for grad school.)

CC adjunct:
I had a student that got an unusually low grade in the course I taught (still passing, but this is a class where students generally get A's or fail with little in between).  I had to be pretty creative.  I included the fact that the student was in the top 50% of the class (not exactly a great accomplishment, but people tend to think the course is harder than it really is), and I noted that she attended every class.  I simply wrote about the positive aspects and avoided writing anything negative.  In your case, I would suggest that the student try to get a letter from someone else.  If that's not possible, then you should try your best.  If his experiences in your class are the best option he has, then his lack of motivation will show in other areas of any applications he makes.

Screwed Student:
If you have to write a bad reference tell the student.  There's nothing worse then having a student not get into any graduate schools and not knowing why he or she couldn't get in.  This is especially true in cases where the student signs the waiver so they do not have a legal right to see their recommendations. It's unfair to students since it waists their time and there may be other professors who can give them a better recommendations.  Remember students are real people and by blocking their ability to get into graduate school, you might be forcing them to put their lives on hold.  Why have them waste their time going through a process that will go no where instead of telling them you don't think they can cut it?

Visiting ass't. prof.:
Perhaps the larger issue here is not so much the rec letter itself but the fact that this student is not ready for graduate school, yet.  A better approach might be for his mentors to have an honest talk with him about his readiness.  Perhaps you could advise this student to do some more work at the undergraduate level to improve A, B, and C, etc. before he applies to graduate school so that he would make a better candidate for admission.  Then his recommenders would be able to write more positive letters for him based on how far he has come.


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