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A former student has asked me to write a letter of recommendation. I am always quite happy to do so -- but in this case it's hard to find much to say. The student took two classes with me and earned B's in both; moreover, both classes were large lectures, so it was more or less impossible to notice most individual students' participation or abilities. I would really like to help but I am not sure what I can write other than a description of the courses the student took and a report on his grades, which were fairly close to the median in both cases. Any suggestions on what else I can say?

Edit: Since a few people have asked, the letter is (in this case) for a one-semester study abroad program in Manchester. I have no idea how competitive admissions are, but it's not like grad school or a job.

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    Possibly relevant : academia.stackexchange.com/q/62564/72855 – Solar Mike Sep 18 at 6:06
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    “both classes were large lectures, so it was more or less impossible to notice any individual student's participation or abilities.” I don’t think that’s quite true? You just need to be that one guy who sits towards the front and always puts his hand up whenever the instructor asks a question to the class. – nick012000 Sep 18 at 8:25
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    @nick012000 You're being overly literal. Sure, you might notice a few of the students. It's clear from the question that the student in question wasn't one of those. – David Richerby Sep 18 at 16:13
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    As others have implied, this may be do'able, depending on what the letter is for. I once wrote a recommendation for a student who was at best within the top third of a high school precalculus class (at a very academically strong school, however), and my initial reaction was that I couldn't help the student, but I learned this was for a not very competitive summer biology camp, or something like that, and applicants needed at least one letter from a math teacher, and in looking over the materials it was clear to me that this student easily exceeded the minimum they wanted for math. – Dave L Renfro Sep 18 at 16:58
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    @mmeent That's misunderstanding the US system (can't speak to other jurisdictions). Students waive their right to view letters under FERPA when submitting them in every case I've ever heard of. It is normal for professors to decline to write them if FERPA protections aren't waived. It is absolutely not normal to assume letters will be written by the subject in the US, although I won't deny it may occur. – Azor Ahai Sep 18 at 18:52
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Before you write the letter, discuss this with the student, and be blunt about it. Most likely the student needs a letter for something and this is the best they've got. One thing is to turn this in to a teachable moment about the need for students to make connections with their instructors. Depending on what the student wants the letter for, this may be sufficient for their purposes. Some things requires letters but don't pay close attention to them. Did the student say what they wanted the letter for? That maybe should be impact what you say and whether you should write it.

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    It's only fair to let the student know that you can't write a very positive letter. – Brian Borchers Sep 18 at 1:48
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    In such cases I've done just this: kind but clear. I basically say "this is the only letter I can write about you, and I will certainly write that letter if you wish, but you should consider whether there is someone else better placed to write you a more personal and positive letter". – GrotesqueSI Sep 18 at 8:51
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    For a 200+ student lecture class, I'm not sure its either feasible or desirable for all those students to be trying to "make connections" with that instructor. Just having a nice half hour chat with each of them would chew up 100 of your office hours. – T.E.D. Sep 18 at 16:13
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    Anecdotally I heard many (esp.) Law School classes are overrun with exactly the opposite type of person: students who want to "make an impression" by asking sycophantic, stupid, irrelevant, fatuous or RTFM questions (often just to get the 'class participation' marks. Bear in mind this is partially intended to encourage non-native English (or whatever) speakers to participate more, but it obviously has severe side-effects). You might want to reflect on whether your assignment/exam grading rewards expressiveness rather than clue, or whether you want it to. – smci Sep 18 at 23:33
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    @einpoklum Sure, it shouldn't, but that doesn't change the fact that some programs require letters and then don't pay much attention to them at all as long as they don't have any obvious red flags. It isn't going to get them into anything that competitive. That's a big part of why I said they should find out what the student intends to use it for. – JoshuaZ Sep 19 at 15:06
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+100

I agree with JoshuaZ that it is good to (1) see what they want recommendations for; (2) make clear to the student that you are willing to write a letter, but won't be able to say much besides how they performed in your class; and (3) make sure they still want a letter from you rather than someone else who may be able to write a stronger letter. (In many situations, they may not have better options for recommenders.)

I generally try to meet in person with students to discuss such requests, and at some point suggest they provide me with an (unofficial) transcript and some of their relevant application materials.

That said, here are some things to think about to help flesh out your letter:

  1. Do you have evidence (from your gradebook etc) of them attending regularly, being punctual/responsible with assignments, showing good study habits or work hard, being motivated, performing consistently, or improving throughout the semester?

  2. If you still have their final exam or some of their assignments, you can look though those again and try to find positive qualities.

  3. From your interactions with them (even just interactions regarding the recommendation letter), does the student seem respectful, friendly, professional or organized?

  4. Think about how the class they took from you compares with what they are applying for. Maybe you taught them something useful. Or maybe they were only mediocre in your class, but maybe comparing with the general population of people applying for said opportunity, getting a B in your class should put them in the 10% of that applicant pool. Many times, faculty have high academic standards and aren't aware how much stronger (in whatever sense) their average students are than the general population. (As a mathematician, I am often shocked about how mathematically weak many of the people who get hired into good data science jobs are.) Can you compare them favorably to people you know who succeeded in similar roles to what they are looking for?

If the student provides you with transcripts/application materials, you can try to use things you see in those to support any positive qualities you may have divined from the above (e.g., being motivated or focused).

Of course you shouldn't try to stretch the truth, and you may as well frame the letter by saying you just had the student in a large class without much personal interaction. Still, I find that usually one does not need to look too far to see evidence of positive qualities, and say whatever I feel I am able to truthfully and trust whoever is reading the letters to interpret them appropriately for their situation.

  • This is actually a much better answer than my answer. – JoshuaZ Sep 21 at 13:13
  • @Thanks, and thanks for the bounty! I've never thought about giving bounties for existing answers, but it's kind thing to do. – Kimball Sep 22 at 21:19
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Don't write a letter.

Given that the student...

  • took two classes with me ... [which were] large lectures, it was ...impossible to notice any individual student's participation or abilities.

  • earned B's in both [classes].

It indeed seems you have no basis for recommending this student, and should therefore not write a letter of recommendation. (Unless your classes are super-hard and most people get D's or lower). As @Buffy suggests - you can tell the student that you're sorry, but you don't know him well enough to write a recommendation.

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    This is probably the best advice. But tell the student why. "I don't know your potential well enough to comment. The general things I could say won't help you." You can also recommend that they get letters from those with whom they have worked closely. – Buffy Sep 19 at 11:10
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    @Buffy: See edit. Also, I'd say you can't write a recommendation based on "general things". If it's not personal - there's no sense in you writing it, it's just a grades printout or what-not. – einpoklum - reinstate Monica Sep 19 at 11:28
  • @Buffy is "the general things I could say won't help you" not a decision that should be left to the student? Presumably the student knows this (or will be told this as per JoshuaZ's answer), and if the student continues to believe this it seems that the professor forcing the student to choose otherwise is a bit out of place – DreamConspiracy Sep 20 at 18:01
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    @DreamConspiracy, yes, and I would write the letter if the student insisted. But first I would carefully explain the consequences. The student probably isn't very sophisticated in how it all works. And I mean insisted. – Buffy Sep 20 at 18:04
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You can write a simple letter describing how average the student is. That is not a bad thing. Average does not mean mediocre. Mention first that he took 2 classes with you and:

  1. Attended as per reglament/regulations
  2. Presented his work/homework as requested each time.
  3. Got along with other students and never got into a fight.
  4. Was respectful to his superiors and equals.
  5. Kept himself orderly in class

A person does not need to stand out or be exceptional. A recommendation letter can recommend how average good is someone. Grades are not important if he did pass the course, which was the objective, and in some regards or countries, the capacity to get along with others (AKA dont get in trouble) is even more important. Some institutions will prefer a candidate that can work along people and follow orders than one that always tries to show off.

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Irrespective of the performance of the student, the key point is to avoid telling untruths to the student and to the admissions committee in Manchester.

If you have the time and inclination, you might want to ask the student what are his objectives in going for one semester to Manchester, and how he feels that the course of your program prepared him for this study abroad, and how he feels the courses in Manchester will help him when he comes back. Such questions usually provide good fodder for reference letters.

Writing a long and meandering letter of support when it's clear you don't have much to say is not necessarily helpful. So, if there is really little or no justification for expansive comments, you should tell the student that you're ok with writing a letter of support but that you are not in a position to say much beyond providing some context for the grades in your courses, v.g providing historical averages and other trends.

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