As a professor, one of the hardest parts of the job was when students ask you to write recommendation letters for graduate school. For the students who were exemplary in your courses, it is fairly easy, especially the students who have taken two or more courses with you. After speaking with them and reading their work over a couple of semesters or years, you have a good feel for their academic abilities and some sense of their personalities.
I found that it can be a slippery slope when agreeing to write a letter, especially for someone whom you are not sure can do graduate work. This is not a time for improvising, because people’s futures are at stake, in some cases.
When I first became a professor, a student asked me for a recommendation whom I thought was not ready for the rigors of graduate school. I gave an assessment of the student’s strengths and listed his weaknesses, stating at the end of the letter that I could not recommend him for the graduate program.
Well, to say that that did not go over well is an understatement. The student wanted to know why I gave him a bad recommendation, insinuating that if he had known that I would write such an awful one, he would not have asked me.
I came to hate being asked, so I talked with a colleague who had many more years of experience. Ralph told me several things that I now use when agreeing to write recommendations. I use these same tips when asked to recommend someone for a job.
First, don’t agree to write recommendations for every person who ask it of you. Set criteria that must be met for you to agree to a request and be sure that people know what those criteria are before they ask. Second, only write letters for students you know outside the classroom, meaning the ones who come for office hours or who stay behind to talk about the subject matter of the day, so you can have a feel for their personalities.
Third, write only for the students that you truly believe are serious and passionate about their potential field of study, meaning the ones you have had more than one conversation with on the matter and feel that they understand what graduate school entails. Too often, students have an infatuation regarding being a social worker or a teacher, wanting to change the world, but they don’t have a clue regarding how hard graduate school can be.
So, I only write recommendations for students who have taken at least two classes with me and whom I have interacted with outside the classroom, seeing them in other situations or speaking with them about their passions and ambitions. Even then, I agree only if I know that I can give an honest assessment and don’t need to hem and haw to find something to say that sounds positive but doesn’t really say anything. It is the same for being to recommend someone for a job.
We cannot see into the future, our own or that of someone else. So, I never lose sight of the fact that someone has put their future in my hands when they request my assistance. I have no way to know the plans and future that God has for their lives, so I have to pray and ask God for help.
If I cannot say something good about the person, then I simply refuse to write the letter. And because I truly want their futures to be awesome, I always hope that when I say no, that maybe there will be someone else that knows them better who can agree to the request. I won’t stretch the truth and set someone up for failure.