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I have already had this issue a few times. I just received an e-mail from a former student of an undergraduate course, asking for a letter of recommendation to apply for graduate studies. This course took place almost 5 years ago. I don't think I had any contact with the student after the course, although it's hard to say: I can't remember the student, and I don't even work at the same university anymore, so I don't even have access to grades, etc. He sent me his transcripts but can I write a letter only with that?

What do people do in this cases? Write a standard letter quoting some of the grades (from the transcript)? How can that be useful to anyone?

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52  
If you can't even remember the student, just politely decline to write the letter. – Massimo Ortolano Jan 31 at 19:31
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You should decline the request to write the recommendation letter. As you said, a lukewarm letter is useless, if not detrimental, to the student's application. – Drecate Jan 31 at 19:31
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Ask if he can provide any of his work that your graded/worked on with him (be honest and note that you cannot quite remember him) - I had a professor do this and he said reading my particular coding and writing style jogged his memory and he was able to write me a good recommendation for a job because of this. – JGreenwell Jan 31 at 21:10
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Here is what I tell all students about letters of recommendation: bbrown.kennesaw.edu/recommendations/index.html – Bob Brown Feb 1 at 0:42
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@BobBrown that's actually very useful, thanks – dbluesk Feb 1 at 11:05
up vote 77 down vote accepted

I would try to accommodate the student. Most faculty were traditional college students, so this might seem like a weird request from our point of view, but many students don't have the same backgrounds, expectations, and economic resources that we do. Some students may need to take a long break from school due to economic setbacks, or because they've had a kid, or because of health problems. Also, keep in mind that not all grad schools are elite PhD programs, so the function of a recommendation letter may not be to vouch for the student's brilliance and ability to do groundbreaking research. For many programs, the purpose of the letter may be more to make sure that the student isn't a cheater or a psycho.

Be up front with the student. Explain honestly that you don't remember him. Let him know that if he has other possible recommenders who would have had more recent interactions with him, he would be better off with them. But if that's not possible, ask him for more detailed written info about his life and plans, and write the best letter you can. You may want to show the student the letter before you send it out, so he has an idea of what he's getting.

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Perhaps also ask the student to remind you of any special interactions you had. Maybe that student did a project you liked, but five years later you don't remember it. – Patricia Shanahan Jan 31 at 20:10
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Perhaps, if there is a photograph, that also can help. – Captain Emacs Jan 31 at 20:32
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I think this is fair, thanks! But I will ask him about other possible recommenders before. – dbluesk Jan 31 at 20:38
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The first paragraph is very important. – Tobia Tesan Feb 1 at 9:10
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As someone who is about to be on the other side of this situation, thank you for writing this! – Josh Rumbut Feb 2 at 15:29

Assuming that the student had good grades, I'd explain that I couldn't remember the student and that I could only base my recommendation on the transcript. I'd still be willing to write such a letter, but I'd encourage the student to find someone else to write a letter if possible.

If the student had grades that weren't very good, then I'd simply decline to write a letter.

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Brian, how could a letter that's based on just a transcript have any value? If it just takes the same information that's written in the transcript and repackages it in letter form, it seems completely useless to me. Am I missing something? – Dan Romik Jan 31 at 20:50
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I've written a few like this. I can say things like: "I have no particular recollection of Joe from the freshman calculus course that he took with me in the fall of 2009. However, I can see from Joe's transcript that he has a GPA of 3.99. His A grades in difficult senior and graduate level courses like MATH 439 and MATH 567 indicate that he should be well prepared for graduate study. Very few of our undergraduate students perform at this level." This isn't a very good letter of recommendation, but it's better than nothing. Unfortunately, there are many students like this... – Brian Borchers Jan 31 at 21:15
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@DanRomik The letter might also contain some information about the content of the course (if it's not a universally standard subject), its level, and the grading policy. If the transcript says that this student got an A+ from me, it can be useful to point out that I almost never give that grade. – Andreas Blass Feb 1 at 0:44

I ask such students to tell me which course(s) they took from me and what major projects they did for those courses (where appropriate). I also ask for a current résumé. That's usually enough for me to write an acceptable recommendation letter for a job or award.

I turn down requests to write Ph.D-program recommendations, as I neither have a Ph.D nor make the kind of assignment that differentiates the Ph.D-ready. (I teach in a professional program and my courses are pretty hands-on.)

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