Truthful Recommendation Letter

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acadguy:
Hello All,

I am the faculty (major) advisor for over 50 undergraduate students. Several students request me to write recommendation letters for scholarships and employment (internship and full time). Some students are stellar, and most are average with some weaknesses. Being their advisor, sometimes I am obligated to write the recommendation letter. My questions to my fellow chronicle members are:

- Can I write a negative recommendation letter (call it as I see it)? (Or)
- Can I write a letter listing both their strengths and weaknesses, and provide a recommendation with some reservations?
- Is there any legal issue now that I can get into trouble due to my negative recommendation letters?

Please share your experience and advice. Thanks in advance.

Thanks!

mountainguy:
There was another recent thread about this topic. The general consensus seems to be "don't write a negative letter." You can mention limitations, but don't agree to write if your overall judgment about the student is negative.

FWIW, I believe the context of the recommendation is important. In the past, I've gladly served as a reference in the past for "C" students who just needed someone to vouch that they were a responsible adult (for example, a reference form for summer camp position or for study abroad opportunities). I would not, however, agree to write a letter recommending that same "C" student to a top-tier PhD program.

copper:
The consensus on that other thread is flat-out wrong.  It is born out of some combination of cowardice, misguided loyalty to students, and a lack of respect for one's professional colleagues (the letter's recipients).  Recommendation letters are recommendations as to what action the recipient of the letter should take.  Write the letter that you would want to receive if you were administering the program; the one that would provide you with the perspective you need to make the best decision for the program you're trying to administer.

As long as what you say is truthful, there is no legal issue.  But that doesn't mean that a student who has not waived his or her right to see the letter can't create a legal hassle for you.  Thus, refuse letters where those rights have not been waived.

--Cu

phlegmatic_affect:
I think the always-relevant "know your audience" bromide is particularly apt here. I agree with copper on an abstract level. Recommendations should be your frank assessment of the abilities and character of the person for whom you are writing. However, the greater proportion of the scholarly community holds the view that if you can't say something positive, you should not agree to write. Because of that, I would be extremely hesitant to send off a negative letter unless I knew who was reading it for fear that I might be judged harshly for violating an unwritten code. And even if I did know that the reader would appreciate a frank negative assessment, I would be more inclined air my more pointed reservations in a phone call.

Also worth considering is that a conspicuously lukewarm letter is effectively a non-recommendation. With a little bit of care, you can craft a letter that says nothing outright negative, but still conveys the message that the person in question has not impressed you.

seniorscholar:
Quote from: copper on January 28, 2013, 12:01:51 AM

  Write the letter that you would want to receive if you were administering the program; the one that would provide you with the perspective you need to make the best decision for the program you're trying to administer.



As someone who has been director of graduate studies, I say absolutely, absolutely, absolutely. You can even mention somewhat serious problems in a helpful way, but don't try to wipe them out. I have written "as you can see from the transcript, Stu Dent has taken far too many incompletes (without any obvious cause), and though the resulting work is often superior, faculty need to be prepared to crack down strongly on work habits."

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