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During your career, you will inevitably be asked to write a letter of recommendation for a student. Below are some ways to deal with student requests and advice on how to write the letter itself.


Set up Expectations

  • Be Transparent: Since you are likely to be asked for a recommendation at some point during your career, it is perfectly reasonable for you to spend some time discussing recommendation requests in class and to set reasonable guidelines for when you expect to be notified of a possible request. The exact time-frame is up to you, but most people find anywhere from 2 weeks to a month’s notice to be reasonable. It depends on how many other commitments you have. You might also want to send the information in e-mail, or place it on your syllabus, just so that you can point to this information if a student makes an unreasonably late request and is upset when you decline them.
  • Cultivate Mutual Respect: From my experience, it seems that most students think that we work only during class hours and therefore have tons of free time that we spend watching Netflix and goofing around. After all, if they don’t read something, their grade decreases to what they might feel is a perfectly acceptable C and they don’t realize that if I don’t read and/or grade something and/or prepare for class, then class literally can’t function. So, part of making sure you don’t get unreasonable requests is to make sure you express that your time is valuable and build your class based on mutual respect. For example, when I collect papers, I always ask student to provide me with the same time to read and grade the assignment as I did for them to write it. In other words, if I gave them the assignment prompt two weeks before the due date, I ask them to respect that I will need that same time to grade their assignments. Before I started to emphasize mutual respect for each other’s time, some students used to get annoyed with me if the paper was not given back by the very next class period.  Now, I receive fewer complaints each class period about the paper not being turned back yet and students are extra appreciative if I hand something back earlier than expected (which I try to do, regardless). If you demonstrate that you are respecting your students’ time, they are more likely to respect your time. If you consistently underscore that your time is important and that you are providing           them with the same courtesy, you are unlikely to receive too many late requests. In the event that you do, it will be easier to explain to the student why the request is impossible for you if you have already set up parameters in your class.


Writing the Recommendation

  • Ask the Student for Important Documents: Always ask a student for complete information about the opportunity they are considering along with a CV, a short description of their recent work (or, if you think it is necessary, a full length example of their most relevant work), and, at the very least, a few bullet points of what they are including in their application essay and a short explanation of why they are applying to this specific program or scholarship. This process is time consuming and the reason that it is important for a student to provide you with adequate notice, since you are going to need time to collect documents from the student, review them, and then address the information in these documents.
  • Create a narrative: When you write a recommendation, represent your student the same way you would represent yourself in a cover letter for a job. Do not use empty phrases, such as “intelligent” or “hard working” without demonstrating these qualities with examples. Create a narrative for the student that speaks specifically to the type of opportunity you are writing the letter for and to the student’s unique strengths.


Respect Your Own Time

As noted above, sometimes students will ask for an unrealistically quick turnover on a letter of recommendation, even if you have already made your guidelines clear. I have had friends who have felt bad turning down a late request, especially when it was for a student they really cared about. I have been there myself. Yet, it is important not to give into this guilt. It is obviously not your fault if a student is late in requesting a recommendation and it is perfectly reasonable to say, even to your favorite student, that you cannot fulfill a late request and will need more time in the future. This is an important skill that they need to learn for future applications and professional relationships.

It is important not to get annoyed at a student if you feel like they are disrespecting you with such a demanding request. Rather, just politely say no and explain to them that they need to provide a certain amount of notice when requesting recommendations. If the student gets angry, which I have never experienced but I have heard of from at least one former colleague, then it is best to just disengage with that person at that time and, if they are willing, explain to them later why their request was not professional and provide them with advice on how to go about asking for recommendations in the future.

You are only helping them by turning them down. Now certainly, it is your prerogative if you decide that you are actually free over the next two days and want to accommodate your favorite student’s late request because you have the time to do so. I would just suggest that you do so sparingly, so as not to set a precedent. After all, your letters will hardly be helpful to a student anyway if it is written at the last minute in between mounds of previously scheduled work.


Further Reading

The below documents will provide more information on how to respond to student requests and construct successful letters of recommendation.

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