Discover the truth about professors and letters of recommendation. Do they ever write negative ones, or do they choose a different approach?

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Key Takeaways:

  • The importance of choosing recommenders who genuinely know and support the student cannot be overstated, as evidenced by experiences of unexpected setbacks due to poorly judged selections.
  • Professors, valuing their own credibility, often prefer to decline writing a recommendation if they cannot honestly endorse a student, highlighting the importance of honest communication between students and recommenders.
  • The process of writing a recommendation letter is a collaborative effort, requiring both the student’s active participation and the professor’s thorough understanding of the student’s experiences and achievements.

Navigating the world of academic recommendations can be daunting, especially when pondering if a professor might write a negative letter. This article delves into the reality behind professors’ decisions on recommendation letters, exploring the likelihood of receiving a bad letter and strategies for securing a strong, personalized endorsement.

What Does a Bad Letter of Recommendation Look Like?

A bad letter of recommendation can range from being unenthusiastically generic to containing explicit disapproval. Key indicators include overuse of clichés and lack of specific examples showcasing the student’s achievements, which may lead admission committees to question the letter’s authenticity. Additionally, phrases like “has potential” or “shows effort” can subtly imply underperformance. A conspicuously brief letter often suggests a lack of positive attributes to highlight. Furthermore, letters marred by grammatical errors or poor proofreading can reflect negatively not only on the student but also on the recommender’s credibility. In essence, a poorly constructed letter, regardless of its positive content, can inadvertently signal a lack of genuine endorsement or effort.

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Real Stories and Expert Opinions

The process of obtaining recommendation letters for academic or professional pursuits is fraught with complexities, as evidenced by various personal experiences and expert insights. These stories reveal the challenges students face in choosing recommenders and the ethical considerations educators grapple with in writing these letters. From unexpected disappointments to ethical dilemmas, these narratives provide a candid look into the critical aspects of securing effective and honest recommendations. Let’s explore these experiences to better understand the intricacies of this important process.

A Student’s Cautionary Tale

When selecting recommenders for important applications, the choice may not always yield the expected outcomes, as vividly illustrated by personal experiences. An undergraduate student in psychology, for instance, carefully selected professors for PhD program recommendations, including the Chair of the Psychology Department. 

“I was an undergraduate applying for PhD programs in psychology. I had put much thought into who I wanted to ask to write my recommendations. I chose one professor who had taught me in a couple of classes, one professor who had mentored me on two research papers, and one professor who was the sponsor of a successful psychology club I had founded. The club’s sponsor also happened to be the Chair of the Psychology Department, so I figured that was a nice bonus. I was wrong.”

This decision, however, led to an unforeseen setback. Upon facing multiple rejections, the student discovered, through a breach of confidentiality, that the department chair had claimed to barely know them, despite their significant involvement in a club under his sponsorship. 

“My advice to anyone who is applying to a program that requires letters of recommendation is this: Ask for at least one extra letter. Read it before you send it. Confidentiality be damned. You have a right to know if someone is stabbing you in the back. Too much is on the line to risk someone sabotaging all your hard work.”

This painful revelation was a stark reminder of the importance of ensuring that recommenders are not only familiar with the student but also genuinely supportive.

Honesty and Integrity in Recommendation Letters

Professor Scott E. Fahlman adds depth to this discussion with his professional insights. He explains that while explicitly negative letters are rare, they do attract evaluators’ attention. 

“Like most professors, if I am asked to write a recommendation by a student that I can’t honestly recommend for the program or position in question, I will decline to do this. If necessary, I will say something like “Based on what I know, I can’t honestly say that you are a good fit for this”. If pressed I will talk about specific problems or alternatives. It’s an uncomfortable conversation for both of us, but necessary. If the student presses for a letter anyway, I might just refuse. If not, I have to write a letter that is as positive as I honestly can be, but that will not damage my own credibility as a recommender, which indirectly will harm all the people I might recommend in the future.” 

Professors like Fahlman prefer to decline writing a recommendation if they cannot honestly endorse a student. However, if they do write a letter, they aim to maintain their credibility without damaging the student’s prospects. He also notes that evaluators are adept at identifying letters that are minimally positive or creatively vague, which can be just as detrimental as an explicitly negative letter. Fahlman’s perspective underscores the importance of clear and honest communication between students and their recommenders, and the need for evaluators to be discerning in their assessment of recommendation letter examples.

A Professor’s Approach to Recommendation Letters

A professor, Richard Muller, shares their methodical approach to writing letters of recommendation, which involves a thorough interview process with the student. This interview is crucial to gather insights about past interactions and to address any concerns, such as poor grades in other courses. The professor also asks students to write a page about themselves, providing a broader view of their personality and activities outside of classwork. This process typically results in a well-rounded letter that resonates with readers.

“My first step is to interview the student. I ask to be reminded of every time in the past we had interacted, if at all. Normally I mention these times in my letter; it helped the reader to recognize that the student was active. Then I ask for any things that the student worried about, bad grades in other courses, for example. We then discussed them, and in my letter I might mention the fact that I was familiar with it (with a D, for example, in another class) and I would describe why (if true) I didn’t think that should be used as a negative. (Typically the student had a good reason.) I ask the student to write me a page describing what he thinks of himself/herself, and what the student does outside of classwork. That’s based on my experience that those reading my letter often like candidates more if the student was well-rounded and personable.”

However, there was one notable exception in this professor’s career. A student, upon being asked to contribute a page about himself, showed reluctance, citing it as too much work amidst his busy schedule. This response, coupled with the student’s dismissive attitude towards the professor’s efforts, led to an impasse. The professor was willing to write the letter only if the student complied with the request for the self-description page. The student’s failure to provide this crucial piece of information prevented the professor from proceeding with the recommendation. This situation highlights the importance of mutual effort and respect in the recommendation letter process, and the challenges faced by educators in balancing their desire to assist with the need for genuine student engagement and cooperation.

Final Thoughts

In exploring whether professors write bad letters of recommendation, it’s clear that while outright negative letters are rare, the nuances of a recommendation’s content and tone are crucial. This exploration underscores the significance of choosing appropriate recommenders, fostering honest communication, and the mutual effort required in the recommendation process.


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