do B-average undergrads deserve letters of reference?

Once again there are discussions  about writing letters of reference in my social media. Some people seem to believe that getting a letter of reference is a privilege that only the very best students deserve, and that instructors ought to put a cap on how many students they will write letters for. Some of the arguments are based on managing instructors’ workloads. Coming from the pro-student side, there are also people who argue that letters of reference should  always be excellent letters that can really help a student’s career, which would seem to imply that letter-writers should decline to write at all if their letter would be merely tepid. (See below for samples.) This latter discourse also seems to imply that all students are excellent, or at least deserve to be written about as if they are excellent. So it is a real question: Do undergraduates who have failed to form close relations with faculty deserve letters of reference? Do mediocre undergraduates deserve letters of reference? My answer to both is, yes. 

Let’s stipulate: (1) Writing letters of reference for undergrads is work, even for top students you know well. There is no common portal or format for graduate school applications, so you have not only the burden of writing the letter itself, but dealing with a lot of very annoying online portals and even paper forms. Students typically apply to at least 5 and often as many as 15 different programs, depending on their field of interest and who is advising them. (2) If you teach at a large public university, you do not know most of your students particularly well, and most of them were not top students, or even above average. (This is not Lake Woebegon and our typical student is, well, average.)  (3) Again, especially at a large public institution, many of your students’ other teachers have since left the institution, often because they were adjuncts in temporary positions. Some instructors are likely to get a lot of requests, especially those who teach smaller upper-level courses. The burdens are not equitably distributed.

The combination of a high workload per student who needs references and claims that all letters should be excellent or not written at all leads many instructors to refuse to write letters for any but A students or students they know well.  But is this fair?

There are a lot of graduate and professional programs out there with widely varying degrees of selectivity. Virtually all of them require three letters of reference for an application to be complete. Getting those three letters is a nightmare for some students because they have trouble tracking down their past instructors and some they do track down refuse to write for them for reasons ranging from the student’s mediocrity to the instructor’s sabbatical or general busyness. I have had conversations in which I tell a student that the letter I could write for them would not be a very good letter and the student would say: I don’t care what it says, I just need three letters. I’ve also talked to honors students who have done independent projects and have one or two excellent letters nailed down who are still desperately shopping for somebody, anybody, to write their third letter, because no matter how good the first two letters are, the application will not be complete without the third.

My view is that all of us who are regular faculty (either tenure track or non-contingent adjuncts) should treat writing letters of reference as an often-annoying but important part of our job. These letters should be honest, and we certainly owe it to the student to tell them honestly if the letter we would be able to write would be tepid or contain negative information that would not help them. We also owe it to the student to ask them about their plans, about their perceptions of the selectivity of the program they are applying to, and whether they have done their homework in selecting a program that fits their qualifications. But if the student feels they want or need the letter anyway after this disclosure and discussion, we should write the letter.

I do require the following from every student who wants a letter from me: (1) a copy of their unofficial transcript which, on my campus, students can print out for free; (2) copies of all the papers etc. they wrote in my class; (3) a written statement of information about them and why they are interested in the program they are applying to. Additionally, for students applying to academic graduate programs, I ask for copies of papers they have written for other classes.

When the class had a TA (which is most common for me), if the TA is still accessible, I ask the TA to write up their experience with the student and I reference this report from the TA in my letter. In some cases, we prepare a letter jointly signed by the TA and me; in other cases I sign the letter but state which information came from the TA.

When I write the letter, I give as much information as I can about the performance of the student in my class (which is often difficult in a large lecture), including an honest report of what their grade was and how that compared to the class average.  My grading scheme allows me to know how a student ranked in the class overall or within the sections taught by that TA.  When possible I give the titles and short descriptions of the papers the student wrote for my class, or others. I beef the letter up with information I glean from the statement the student has given me.

Honestly, a majority of the letters I write following this scheme could properly be read on the other end as tepid. I know there are people out there who think tepid letters should never be written, and all letters should be excellent, but to me this flies in the face of reality. Should students be automatically disqualified from even applying to any program unless three faculty members are willing to promise that the letters they write will be glowing?  Are B students to be permanently disqualified from all graduate programs, no matter what the field? What I tell students who will be getting relatively tepid letters is that the letter will not say anything negative about them, that because I don’t know them very well and/or their grade in my class was mediocre, the letter is unlikely to help  their application, but if the other materials in their file are good, my letter will not actively hurt them.

On the receiving end of these applications, I would hope that those screening candidates for graduate school would have enough sense to recognize the limitations of the letters a student from a large public school is going to be able to get. I did graduate admissions for a spell. I know that the private liberal arts colleges can generate much better letters for their students. I know that there are stellar undergraduates at large public schools who are in honors programs or who have gone through a small-group research-intensive experience who do collect good references, although even these students typically have one or two really good references and one or two that are obviously based on much less personal knowledge. And I agree that the really well-mentored students will have been told that they need three good letters, and will have done the work throughout their undergraduate career to collect them. But I have seen lots of applications with reference letters from teaching assistants or adjuncts who clearly did not know “the ropes” about letter writing, and sometimes with reference letters from employers or even family friends. I would never automatically assume that these students were not graduate school material just because they came from a large public school where collecting reference letters is difficult. And we are an elite program looking at the very best applicants. There are many less-elite programs and non-academic programs whose applicant pool is likely to be even less well mentored, but whose applicants may still have what it takes to do their program.

And finally, students from other countries often have a great deal of difficulty getting “good” references because the cultural norms for “good” letters vary between places and the idea of the reference letter is not well established. Also, the potential referees do not necessarily write well in English. When I was doing graduate admissions in the late 1990s, it became clear to me from textual evidence that the “best” letters of reference from Chinese applicants had been written by the applicants themselves, or by professional letter-writers.  I mentioned this concern to a Chinese sociologist now working quite successfully in the US and they sort of looked embarrassed and said something like, “well you know, Chinese professors don’t write English, they don’t understand this system.”

Samples of the writing about letters of reference that stress good letters and saying no:


Author: olderwoman

I'm a sociology professor but not only a sociology professor. I keep my name out of this blog because I don't want my name associated with it in a Google search. Although I never write anything in a public forum like a blog that I'd be ashamed to have associated with my name (and you shouldn't either), it is illegal for me to use my position as a public employee to advance my religious or political views, and the pseudonym helps to preserve the distinction between my public and private identities. The pseudonym also helps to protect the people I may write about in describing public or semi-public events I've been involved with. You can read about my academic work on my academic blog --Pam Oliver

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