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I'm a first year PhD student. A student applying for an undergraduate institution in the US has asked me to write him a letter of recommendation. I wonder if a first year graduate student can write recommendation letters to high school graduates applying to US colleges.

This is not my main question though. That student has a connection to my family. I discussed physics with him once and I wasn't able to form any idea about his physics ability. What's worse, he wants me to recommend his friend who is also applying to US colleges, although I have never met or spoken with his friend at all. He wrote himself a recommendation (which I have to send as if it's I who had written it) that he had worked with me in the physics laboratory and that he was my strongest student. I wish to know how to proceed. I have two options:

  1. refuse to write that letter

  2. write that I have never met him.

I wonder how common is this.

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    Its not the main question so I'll just comment here, but it is very unsual for a first year grad student to be asked to write a letter of recommendation, particularly since he is asking you to say he is your best student, when presumably you have no students. If I were the admissions tutor here, I'd probably throw such a letter in the bin. – Ian Sudbery Nov 1 '20 at 21:51
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    You have no basis on which to write a fair and honest letter so you should tell your "friend" that you are unable to help. I doubt that this is very common, actually. – Buffy Nov 1 '20 at 22:38
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    "I wonder if a first year graduate student can write recommendation letters?" Can, but should choose not to in most situations. – Anonymous Physicist Nov 1 '20 at 23:17
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    Option 2 has the potential to make you and the student look bad. It's not clear why you're so conflicted over taking Option 1. Is it because it's a family friend? – Jay Nov 2 '20 at 6:28
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    In the worst case, writing such letter(s) could sabotage future applications from other students, if somebody in the US university flags the applicant's school (or even country) as "not understanding the concept of academic standards". If one piece of information is apparently fabricated, then everything else might also be fabricated. If future applications go straight into the trash, the applicants will never be able to prove they were rejected unfairly. – alephzero Nov 3 '20 at 1:13
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You shouldn't write a letter of recommendation for someone you have spoken to once, and you certainly shouldn't write a letter of recommendation for a friend of some you have spoken to once.

You should never lie in a letter of recommendation, but it is generally also bad form to write negative things in a letter of recommendation. If you can't in good faith write good things about a candidate, you should refuse to send the letter.

EDIT:

I'll add an answer to your first (not main) question from the comments:

It is very unusual for a first year grad student to be asked to write a letter of recommendation, particularly since he is asking you to say he is your best student, when presumably you have no students. If I were the admissions tutor here, I'd probably disregard such a letter. Unless it was obviously dodgy (claiming things which were clearly untrue), in which case, it would count (heavily) against the candidate.

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  • Maybe strengthen this a bit, similar to what you have in your comment to the question. – Buffy Nov 1 '20 at 22:37
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    Since OP says there's a family connection, perhaps "decline politely" rather than "refuse." You could write, "I'm sorry, but as I have no basis to evaluate your work, I am unable to help." (Hat tip to Buffy for most of those words.) – Bob Brown Nov 1 '20 at 23:46
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    I agree with this answer, but just to clarify a potential misconception among young readers: there are circumstances in which it makes sense to write a recommendation for someone you've never directly spoken with, if you've evaluated there work in some way. (E.g., a student in a large lecture class.) – Kimball Nov 2 '20 at 17:06
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I wonder if a first year graduate student can write recommendation letters to high school graduates applying to US colleges.

I can’t say much about the extent to which such a letter would be helpful to someone’s application, but a letter from a graduate student, assuming it is truthful and written in good faith, is absolutely acceptable. I can imagine situations where it would be pretty helpful actually, others (like your particular situation where you know very little about the applicant’s actual abilities) where it wouldn’t be.

he wants me to recommend his friend who is also applying to US colleges, although I have never met or spoken with his friend at all. He wrote himself a recommendation (which I have to send as if it's me who had written it) that he had worked with me in the physics laboratory and that he was my strongest student. I wish to know how to proceed.

First and most importantly: Do not under any circumstances send a letter of recommendation containing untruthful statements. If you send it you would be committing serious academic misconduct. It is unethical and if the lie were found out you could get in serious trouble.

Second, this request reflects quite poorly on your family member/connection. I suggest explaining to him in no uncertain terms that his request is unacceptable and unethical, and that he should not be abetting his “friend” in cheating his way into college. Don’t “decline politely” as some people are suggesting in the comments. I assume if someone were to ask you to rob a bank as a favor you wouldn’t be “declining politely”. This young man is at a point in his life where a tough bit of reality can be immensely helpful in helping him mature and learn how the world works. If you care about him, you’d do well to tell him the truth about the nature of his request even if it’s unpleasant.

As for writing a letter where you say you don’t know the friend of your family connection, presumably that would itself be a dishonest act since you would be telling the friend that you’d be sending the fraudulent letter that he wrote, but actually sending a different letter. You would be leading him into trouble, and while arguably he deserves it, it’s more ethical and decent to try to prevent him from getting into trouble in the first place by steering him towards a better path.

Edit addressing some of the comments: when I said not to decline politely, my issue is not so much with the “politely” but rather with the neutrality implied by “decline”. So for example, OP should not say

Please tell your friend that I don’t feel I can help with his request. Sorry! And best regards to Aunt Betsy.

This doesn’t send any helpful message about how serious and unacceptable it is to take part in a conspiracy to send fraudulent letters of recommendation. Instead, what I meant was that the reply should be clear and direct about this issue (whether it’s polite or not is beside the point, OP can use whatever mode of address feels natural to them when talking to this person). For example, something along these lines would be much more helpful:

Hi [name],

I can’t help your friend by sending the letter he wrote, and you should know that what he is asking is completely unacceptable and is a form of cheating. I would never lie in a letter of recommendation, your friend shouldn’t ask anyone to do such a thing and you shouldn’t help him if that’s what he insists on doing. It can get him into serious trouble, like being expelled from college or not getting in in the first place.

Anyway, I understand you’re just getting started with the whole college application thing, so maybe you didn’t know. That’s okay I guess, but I wanted you to understand how serious this is. College isn’t high school, and cheating is taken extremely seriously there. If you need more advice about how to handle any of the application business, I’d be happy to discuss it, so feel free to reach out.

Give my regards to Aunt Betsy!

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    "I assume if someone were to ask you to rob a bank as a favor you wouldn’t be “declining politely”." I heard many bank robbers will give up if you decline politely to give them money. I am not sure if that is true, though. Anyway, just because someone is doing something bad is no reason to be rude. I would assume this high school student is acting out of ignorance - not all high schools have competent college admissions advising. – Anonymous Physicist Nov 2 '20 at 0:25
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    I also don't see a problem with "graduate student", since many of the student's high school teachers likely have only an undergraduate degree. However, such a letter would raise red flags unless the letter clearly showed why it is more informative and reliable than one of the usual letters from a high school teacher the letter is presumably replacing. But given the comments in the OP's second paragraph, the OP doesn't come anywhere close to satisfying this. – Dave L Renfro Nov 2 '20 at 11:14
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    I mostly agree with the response, except for "[not] declining politely". There is almost never a cost to be polite, at least at first interaction. The message still can be the same. A polite response is more likely to be listened to rather than raise defensiveness. – Captain Emacs Nov 2 '20 at 15:26
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    @CaptainEmacs the point I was trying to make wasn’t about politeness versus the lack of it. I edited to clarify. – Dan Romik Nov 2 '20 at 16:09
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    @DanRomik I got your point about making a clear statement, your clarification is good. On the matter of culturally comparing giving a questionable reference with murder - there is a good reason why the time of Dracon the lawgiver are over; and why not every felony and crime are punished by the death penalty. Such comparisons just invite polemics, even if it's just meant to clarify. We should not forget that some countries consider some of Western rules unacceptable. It is better to say that in the target country (US) such a practice is unacceptable, rather than to claim universality. – Captain Emacs Nov 2 '20 at 16:54
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Don't lie under any circumstances

  1. Never mind academic misconduct, under certain legislations this is straightforward fraud and might get you a huge fine or put you in jail.

  2. If something goes wrong and either of these people get into academic or other kind of trouble your name will be dragged into it.

  3. You will spend the rest of your life worrying about this, in case something goes wrong.

  4. Academia within subjects is a small world. People know people and they know who knows who - especially in research fields. You can easily get caught out if someone asks questions.

  5. It is not unknown for institutions to follow up on a letter of recommendation to find out more about a candidate. If you get a telephone call asking for further details, what will you do.

  6. Once you give in to this sort of thing, you will be seen as an 'easy-touch' and you will start to get requests from other people.

Find a way to refuse

Let us know if the culture you are from makes it difficult or impossible to refuse. This will help with formulating an answer.

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The other answers have covered this specific situation, where you should clearly say no.

That said, I do want to push back a bit on the idea that graduate students shouldn't write recommendation letters for people applying for undergraduate programs. I have a lot of experience at summer math programs, and it is quite common for students to get a letter from one of their graduate student instructors at the summer program, and our students have excellent placement at top US undergraduate institutions using these letters. This may be in part because the program itself has a strong reputation at top universities, but I think it's also the case that graduate students at top universities often have more experience with top math students than a typical high school teacher does and can make a more credible and accurate identification of the difference between being in the top 10, top 100, or top 1000 math students in the country in their year.

(My case is even more unusual, because I was homeschooled before that was very common, but I got a letter from my counselor at the Ross summer program who was at the time I applied a 2nd year math graduate student at Harvard. I got into every university I applied to.)

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Other answers already confirm your concerns that writing a LoR for someone with whom you have discussed physics once has problems. The key point being that you need to be honest in what you write, for both your sakes.

However, an alternative approach to your dilemma is to talk to him again, making clear to him that writing anything inaccurate is off the cards. Let him know that you would be able to help him, but would like a video chat to explore what to write. Effectively, you would provide a friendly interview/ mentor and discover strengths that can be touched upon in your LoR. When writing your LoR, you can in turn be up front about this, stating your relationship but then calling out those things you have learned in your conversation.

You could potentially even do this for the friend, this approach allowing you to be both supportive and honest.

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