A Note About Recommendation Letters

Earlier this year a former student contacted me via email requesting a recommendation letter to Columbia University. I was happy to hear from *the student and remembered the student easily. The student was in my two of my freshman courses. I remember the excellent work ethic and that the student was not afraid to challenge my grading of his work. It was an easy decision when I said yes to the young man. I wrote from memory about his determination and drive, along with sincerity. He was a student who asked questions, and greeted his professors in passing. Once the letter was written, he was thankful and my good deed was done.

Another semester I taught an early 8:45am course. Early classes are difficult for freshman, especially in the Winter. The mornings are dark and cold. Students trek begrudgingly to class half asleep. Meet the next student who asked me for a recommendation letter. This student spent the whole semester half asleep and checked out. Despite many private conversations, the return in investment was mediocre work, clearly showing failure to pay attention in class. Lastly, the student fell asleep in class almost religiously. After all was said and done, the student asked for a recommendation letter at the end of the semester. I was baffled.

I thought to myself, if I was a student who performed poorly and took regular naps in class how could I have the audacity to ask for a reference letter? Perhaps I can refer you to a mattress? I mulled over the request: On one hand, I do want all of my students to do well in and out of my classroom, yet at the same time, it is clear that this student was not deserving a recommendation letter. I concluded that I would write the letter for the student under a condition. I knew it would be worth it if the student delivered. I emailed the student back and asked for a resume and a brief 5 paragraph essay about future goals. I expressed that despite the fact that we spent the whole semester together, it felt as though I didn’t get to know the student…which was true. Many of our interactions were stand offish and the student was often impatient and short in our conversations. In the end, the student never responded back to me. To this day, I have yet to hear from the student again.

Educators are not required to write letters of recommendation, it is not in our job description however, it is something that at least I would like to do for my students. I did not want to say no to the second student despite the poor quality of work the student produced. I felt that asking for a written statement and resume was a small exercise in giving a second chance. It was up to the student who chose not to take the second chance. Before asking for a letter, students should assess themselves: Have I been a good enough (not perfect but good enough) student in class? How is rapport with my professor? Am I willing to do anything additional if asked? All of these things should be taken into account before requesting a recommendation letter.

*All names,sex, and actual semester of the students have been hidden for privacy purposes.


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