Eventually, a student will ask you to write a letter of recommendation or fill out a similar recommendation form. My overall advice in these situations is to think about the situation, whether you feel you can write a strong recommendation, and whether you are the best person to write it.
How to Decide and What to Say
Remember that you are not required to write a letter for anyone, especially if you feel that you cannot provide a good recommendation. It’s also completely acceptable to say no if you are too busy because of other obligations. You don’t have to give the student any complex explanation, though I think the writer in us wants to say, “No, because….”
I usually make the decision based on what the letter is for. If it’s for a tech writing student who is applying for a job after graduation, I usually suggest that someone in their major will know their professional qualifications better than I do, so I don’t feel comfortable writing the letter. No one expects an English teacher to know if someone would make a great civil engineer or software developer.
If it’s a student looking for a recommendation for something on campus, I usually go ahead. If it were a research assistantship or the like, I might hesitate; but for something with a club or campus office, I assume that I know enough to give a recommendation (and that their writing skills probably aren’t the crucial thing for the job).
If the letter is for a student who I can’t recommend for some reason, I say no with a general response: I’m sorry, but I don’t think I can write a strong letter for you. Just be direct. The student surely wants a good letter, and if you say you cannot provide one, the student should get the message.
Regardless of the kind of letter, if you’re crunched for time, just say no. There’s no reason to add one more thing to your workload. Just provide an honest reply to the student: Right now, I have to decline your request because of other obligations. I would not be able to get to your letter in a timely manner.
Timing of Your Response
If you are going to say no, do so quickly. You might be tempted to let the letter wait so that you can avoid the uncomfortable reply. While it’s tempting to wait, remember that the student needs to find someone else to write the letter. A quick negative response from you gives the student more time to find someone else.
What to Write
If you do decide to write the letter, make the student do the work. Ask her to provide details on what she’d like you to emphasize and to remind you of some things she did in class to stand out. Remember the FERPA guidelines apply, so you cannot talk about the student’s specific grades or other private information.
Here are some good resources:
- Writing Letters of Recommendation (from Inside Higher Ed)
- Tips for Providing References (linked from the VT Career Services Site)
- Will I Write a Letter for You? (from Inside Higher Ed)
- How Do You Write Letters of Recommendation? (from Inside Higher Ed)
- 5 Principles for Writing Effective Letters of Recommendation for Grad School Applicants (from ProfHacker, and they can apply to any letter really, not just grad school)
[Photo: RECOMMENDED! by jm3 on Flickr]