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Recommendation letter help
October 14, 2012 6:08 AM   Subscribe

Recommendation letter wording help: how to tactfully ask a professor to decline my request for recommendation if they cannot provide a "strong" recommendation.

I'm just starting on the application process for grad school.

I've searched AskMefi questions about recommendation letters, and most say that you should only ask the professor to write letters if they can write "strong" letters.

I'm having trouble finding the right words to make this request. On the one hand, I only have two professors that I can ask recommendations from, and I don't want to scare them out of wanting to write a recommendation letter for me with this "strong recommendation" thing. On the other hand a lukewarm recommendation is really something I don't want.

So I've come to AskMefi to get some help with the wording. I'm be doing this over email (already graduated and moved out of the area), so I definitely want to mull this over and make this request tactfully. I already spoke with them and they have both agreed to write recommendation letters, but last time when I made the request, I didn't specifically mention "strong recommendations". I'm about to email them to confirm that they are still willing to write my recommendation letters, but am having trouble with a good way to bringing up the above question.
posted by anonymous to Education (21 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
 
You're overthinking this. A professor (or anyone) wont [shouldn't] write a recommendation letter that isn't a glowing recommendation. If they don't think they can write a strong one, they'll decline or make an excuse why they can't write a letter for you. Since they both agreed to write recommendation letters, I don't see any reason to ask again/remind them it should be a "strong" recommendation.
posted by ish__ at 6:10 AM on October 14, 2012 [12 favorites]


"Can I assume that the strength of my recommendation will be in line with the grade I received in the class?" works if you got an excellent grade.

But I kind of feel like if you've already talked to them about writing a recommendation for you and now your communication will be through e-mail it's become a bit more tricky. Maybe try adding to your e-mail "Please feel free to let me know if you are unable to write me the letter, if maybe you don't feel comfortable with writing me a strong recommendation, or if you don't have time" this way they'll say they don't have much time if they can't write a good one.

These things are tricky though. You never know at the end what they'll write- recently I asked for two recommenders to write letters. One of them wrote the most amazing letter ever even though I thought they were unhappy with my work, the other one who was happy with my work did not know how to write a strong letter. In these cases I was able to see both letters but usually we're not that lucky
posted by saraindc at 6:13 AM on October 14, 2012 [2 favorites]


If they don't think they can write a strong one, they'll decline or make an excuse why they can't write a letter for you.

This should be true but it definitely is not always true. I have a colleague that will write a letter for anyone who asks - even if he doesn't think they're a strong applicant. He has explicitly put in letters that he recommends against admitting the applicant to the program. I think this is a shitty thing to do (and have told him as much), but he claims that it means that the programs "trust" his good letters much more.

If you were initially asking them, I would just straight out say: "I'm looking for people to write me letters for grad school. Do you feel like you could write me a strong letter of recommendation?" [To his credit, my colleague who will write bad letters would say "No" at this point]

Since they've already said they will write letters, I don't think there's any way to get around the awkwardness of just asking. Maybe something like:

"Thanks so much for agreeing to write me letters. I realize that I was a little presumptuous in assuming that you would feel comfortable writing me a strong letters - sorry about that. Do you feel comfortable writing me a strong letter? If not, I really didn't mean to impose and I can definitely find someone else who would feel more comfortable."

That way, you're giving them an out and blaming your own "presumptuousness."
posted by Betelgeuse at 6:59 AM on October 14, 2012 [5 favorites]


Since you only have two prospective letter-writers, I agree you don't want to scare them off. But as Betelgeuse just mentioned, professors are used to being asked fairly directly if they can write a strong letter.

The best thing you can do comes after they've agreed. Give your professor an e-mail or document with specifics of the types of things you're hoping the letter could touch on, and examples you can think of from your past interactions that you think illustrate those things. Basically, try to make it very easy for the professor to write you a strong letter.
posted by _Silky_ at 7:04 AM on October 14, 2012


A professor (or anyone) wont [shouldn't] write a recommendation letter that isn't a glowing recommendation. If they don't think they can write a strong one, they'll decline or make an excuse why they can't write a letter for you.

As mentioned, this is definitely not true. I don't think many people will willingly write harsh or super negative letters, but mediocre letters get written all the time.
posted by Forktine at 7:07 AM on October 14, 2012


And to answer the "how" part of the question, I would suggest asking at the same time you send them your updated CV, your writing sample, your statement of purpose, and any other materials you are going to be sending them to help them indeed write a strong letter. I'd phrase it more as an "I just wanted to confirm that you are still able to write a strong letter," etc, rather than as a new request, even though you didn't talk about it before.
posted by Forktine at 7:40 AM on October 14, 2012


Are you still in undergrad? Because if you are, the best thing to do is to do this in person. Schedule meeting with professors to talk about grad school in general - you want their help figuring out if it's right for you. This conversation will give you a sense of whether or not they can write you an enthusiastic letter. If so, you can ask them at the end.
posted by Ragged Richard at 7:42 AM on October 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


Argh, sorry, didn't read carefully enough. In that case, I suggest either a phone conversation, or an initial email about general grad school advice. This won't give you quite as much of a sense of things as an in-person conversation would, but you'll still get a sense of whether or not they think you should go to grad school, which is a good indicator of the kind of letter they'd write.
posted by Ragged Richard at 7:46 AM on October 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think there's really nothing you can say in advance to get the guarantee you want. (Keep in mind some people are just better and worse letter writers, too.)

Best strategy is to just give them a lot of concrete information about you and your grad school plans -- what you want to study, why you want to study it -- as well as a current CV and anything you still have from the course you took with them (a paper you did well on, for instance, or even just a menory of a a particular class discussion). Send them your personal statement and writing sample if they're ready.

It can be hard in these rec letters to escape a kind of numb generality, so the more specifics your letter-writer can provide the better off you'll be.
posted by gerryblog at 7:49 AM on October 14, 2012


As an academic who has written letters for students, I would be RELIEVED if you asked me outright whether I could write a strong recommendation or not. I don't think you need to worry about phrasing this delicately. If they feel they can strongly recommend you, they'll say "of course" and not think anything more of it. If they can't, they'll be glad you asked them outright because it gives them an opportunity to decline more easily.

But have you considered what you will do if they say no? You say you haven't got any other options for recommendations, so is this really a question you want to ask? For some profs, a "strong" recommendation would mean they can say you are one of the top students they have ever taught, that you have excellent potential as a future researcher, that you have basically no weaknesses. A letter that is not quite as strong as that, but not totally negative either, might be better than not having a recommendation letter at all.
posted by lollusc at 7:53 AM on October 14, 2012 [3 favorites]


Your question suggests you have multiple professors you who could feasibly write you a recommendation, and you want to be sure you get the 2 or 3 strongest letters. If not, then you may be overthinking this, as it's unclear what the benefit is to avoiding sending a mediocre letter.

If I'm right, and you are genuinely conflicted as to which professors are likely to have the highest opinion of you, I think the least noisiest way of sorting this out is to ask them for advice on which schools you should apply to. Someone who suggests a top-10 program in your field has a high opinion of you. Someone who suggests the Hollywood Upstairs Grad School does not. Send them your transcript, a copy of your personal statement, and any other relevant information when you ask.
posted by deadweightloss at 8:21 AM on October 14, 2012


I've searched AskMefi questions about recommendation letters, and most say that you should only ask the professor to write letters if they can write "strong" letters.

I'm having trouble finding the right words to make this request.


I think it's best to be direct and succinct: "Dear Professor X, as I mentioned last time we were in touch, I am planning to apply for graduate programs in ________. Would you be able to write me a strong recommendation, considering what you know of my performance in your class? I can provide you with copies of my personal statement, c.v., and any other supporting documents you would like to see." That's their cue to beg off or drop you a hint if they don't think you're a plausible candidate for the programs you're applying for. As other respondents have already mentioned, not all professors understand that cue in the same way, but it's conventional enough that I think most profs get it.

On the one hand, I only have two professors that I can ask recommendations from, and I don't want to scare them out of wanting to write a recommendation letter for me with this "strong recommendation" thing. On the other hand a lukewarm recommendation is really something I don't want.

Yeah. And it's better to find out early on if you won't be getting a strong letter. If you can't find the minimum number of people to say that you are a strong candidate for the programs you're targeting, you might want to rethink whether the programs are going to be a good match for you. The process of soliciting recommendations is not just about lining up the required documents for your application; it's also a chance to think about whether you really are a good candidate for grad school (not just with respect to raw ability, but also with respect to your research interests, career ambitions, and temperament). It's an opportunity to discuss this question directly and frankly with your mentors who have been through grad school themselves. It's too bad you can't drop by for a chat with your former profs in person, but you may be able to open up some of this discussion by email.

Now, if you believe that you really are a good match for your prospective graduate programs, but you think your profs might have specific reasons to think you're not a good match (e.g. poor academic performance), then I think you should address those concerns with them explicitly.
posted by Orinda at 8:25 AM on October 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


You could bluntly ask, but if you want to avoid potential awkwardness - Just don't submit any that you don't like. Simple as that.

That said, generally you would only ask people for a recommendation if you know they'll give you glowing praise. You don't ask your "Intro to Foo" prof, that you had for a single class and sat in the back, for a letter - Even though you got an A. You instead ask your "Guided Topics in Foo" prof, with whom you worked closely on some interesting challenges in his or her area of expertise.

The biggest limitation there comes from actually having something to say - Only a complete asshole would give you an outright poor recommendation; but a professor that knows almost nothing about you (beyond your coursework) can't really write much more than generalities that will come off sounding weak, no matter how well-intentioned.
posted by pla at 8:25 AM on October 14, 2012


i've had a professor thank me for asking if he could write a good letter of recommendation, not just a letter.
posted by cupcake1337 at 8:25 AM on October 14, 2012


Just don't submit any that you don't like. Simple as that.

Not so simple as that, if anonymous is applying to graduate programs in the U.S. They generally expect you to sign a waiver relinquishing your right to see your letters of recommendation. The whole graduate admissions system runs on the assumption that letters of recommendation are confidential and not screened by the candidate. Also, did you read the part of the question where the asker says "I only have two professors that I can ask recommendations from"? That suggests that the asker has already narrowed down the choices to two professors who know their work well enough to write for them, and there's not going to be much room to pick and choose among multiple prospects.
posted by Orinda at 8:33 AM on October 14, 2012 [4 favorites]


You could bluntly ask, but if you want to avoid potential awkwardness - Just don't submit any that you don't like. Simple as that

It doesn't work this way..at least in the sciences. When I write letters for students they must submit information about me to the potential Graduate School. That school then contacts me via email and directs me to their on-line portal to complete the recommendation. What I send never passes through the hand of a student and I would never write a letter of rec for a student and just hand it to them. And if a student waives their right to ever view the letter, they will never see it.
posted by Seymour Zamboni at 8:40 AM on October 14, 2012 [2 favorites]


I asked straight out if my professors would be willing to write me a strong letter. One said she couldn't, she could write a letter but didn't know me well enough to write a really strong one, and I told her thanks anyway and that I'd find someone else. I was relieved that I'd asked outright since it definitely meant I found a slightly less senior faculty member who could say more glowing things about me.

I'm in a highly technical field and I guess tact isn't so expected :) but the professor seemed relieved that I'd specifically asked her if she thought she could write a strong letter since it gave her an opening to say no and avoid screwing up my application. Ultimately most people don't really want to write a lukewarm or negative letter. I don't think it feels good.
posted by town of cats at 10:29 AM on October 14, 2012


"Would you be able to write me a strong recommendation for graduate school?" No need to be awkward about it.
posted by grouse at 12:48 PM on October 14, 2012


Orinda : Not so simple as that, if anonymous is applying to graduate programs in the U.S. They generally expect you to sign a waiver relinquishing your right to see your letters of recommendation

Strange. I recently started a part-time graduate degree (though just a lowly MBA), which required 2+ letters of recommendation, and I just included them in with my application packet.

I suppose each school has different requirements... But it seems odd, to me, to outright insist that the candidate not see it.
posted by pla at 2:09 PM on October 14, 2012


Definitely ask, and be as blunt as you can be about the "strong" part. The first time I applied to doctoral programs, I apparently got a letter that was "this student attended this masters' program and took my seminars on X and Y. I have no reason to believe she would do poorly in your program" - it was total cookie-cutter, even to his own program. I later learned that he sent the same letter for everyone.

The next time I applied to a doctoral program, I decided to go with the assistant and associate professors who really knew me, rather than the full professors who recycled letters.
posted by catlet at 2:46 PM on October 14, 2012


Again, "A professor (or anyone) wont [shouldn't] write a recommendation letter that isn't a glowing recommendation." is ABSOLUTELY NOT TRUE. My husband is on a scholarship committee and regularly reads letters from the same professors that are lukewarm boilerplates, half-hearted, faintly negative, 3 sentences long, etc. So while "shouldn't" is true, "won't" is IN NO WAY, SHAPE, OR FORM TRUE.

You should have done this when you first approached them. Doing it now is late, it seems to me, a little bit rude. Do it with the initial request next time. But you should still approach them by email and say "By the way, I know you're busy, but I just wanted to mention that if you aren't totally comfortable giving me a strong recommendation, I totally understand and I would be happy to look for another letter writer. Thanks again for your time and effort!"

But if you really can't ask anyone else, you should ask yourself this: What am I going to do if they say "Well, I can write a positive recommendation, but it won't be too (detailed, glowing, whatever) because (whatever)." If you actually have no recourse and two letters are required, then ... maybe you just need to take what you can get.

Good luck!
posted by wintersweet at 4:37 PM on October 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


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