I have an undergraduate student who has been working in my lab for quite some time, doing relatively advanced work and has even been able to mentor other students in getting up to speed in the workings of the lab and the methods we use. I never had this student in a class, but they approached me in their second year asking if I had any opportunities and I was happy to provide an unpaid opportunity and the following year a student job for them after seeing their exceptional work.

This student is now applying to graduate school and has asked me to write them a recommendation letter, and I said I would be happy to do so since the student has demonstrated competence and has even started asking quite interesting research questions related to our work. As part of the recommendation process I always ask for the application materials, including transcripts, personal statement and so on. Upon looking at the transcripts I found out the student has a very bad academic history and has even recently been on academic probation. They got C's in classes closely related to our subject (but taught by people I don't know well in the department). I'm not sure what to think or whether to include that as part of my recommendation letter, or to ignore it overall?

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    Can you ask the student for permission to discuss them with the other faculty? But, in any case, if you think they have the knowledge even without the grades, you can certainly say that. You might also ask the student about the grades, of course. There may have been external issues you don't know about. – Buffy Feb 25 at 21:02
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    This is exactly what recommendation letters are for is so that the evaluators can learn more about an "exceptional" student beyond grades, which of course can vary widely between faculty, departments, universities, countries, and continents. – Azor Ahai -him- Feb 25 at 21:06
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    @Buffy Yes, I can do both, but going into that conversation I'm not exactly sure what sort of questions I should ask - if there are circumstances I don't know about, should that effect my letter? And also should I advise the student that their chances of admission are very low given their grades despite their clear research ability? – RJ Williams Feb 25 at 21:10
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    You made a mistake in asking for the transcript, and they made a mistake giving it to you. You job is to speak from first hand experience. You're not a part of the candidate filtering process. Now you'll have a tough time speaking in an unbiased way. – Gregory Currie Feb 26 at 6:57
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    @GregoryCurrie It is important for the evaluators to acknowledge the low grades and say something about them (I say this as someone who had low GPA, and was specifically told after the fact that this not being addressed in some of my letters nearly cost me my grad school acceptance; I didn't think to mention it to my letter writers) – Morgan Rodgers Feb 26 at 12:24

When I write letters for undergrads (in math, in the U.S.), I usually aim to speak exactly and only about things I know from first-hand experience. For that matter, transcripts (whether high-GPA or low) are usually part of the application, so second-hand comments from me add little.

Now and then, I am surprised to learn that a student of whom I think quite highly has had some rough spots earlier. I can only infer that they've done a great job of turning themselves around, and I'm happy to vouch for the positive things they're doing.

  • I was very surprised! The problem is that it was poor performance throughout, the grades didn't really get better. – RJ Williams Feb 25 at 21:34
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    @RJWilliams, hm, ... Does not bode well. Still, I somewhat prefer the evidence of my own eyes... Well, bad grades throughout will be visible in the transcript, so you/we don't have to "pile on". I'd just not refer to that and let the admissions cte reach their own conclusions. – paul garrett Feb 25 at 21:40
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    @RJWilliams It might be worthwhile talking to the student about why their performance is poor. Perhaps they are the kind of person who cannot motivate themselves to write up and submit their homework, but nevertheless studies hard and learns the subject well. I would say a low GPA in this case is indicative of a failure of grades to measure learning, not really any fundamental flaw in the student themselves (other than an intolerance for work they do not find meaningful, if that can be considered a flaw). – Steven Gubkin Feb 26 at 12:49
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    As a student, I second the comment by @StevenGubkin that grades don't say as much about skill in the topic as they say about skill in getting good grades. I have always said that the reason my grades were just a bit above "sufficient" was that I preferred learning interesting stuff over what I know they will test. This semester I have tested that hypothesis by aiming for good grades instead (wasn't as fun though) and I got two perfect grades and another one higher than all of my previous grades, yet feel I learned less overall. – lucidbrot Feb 26 at 16:57
  • @RJWilliams As someone who has graduated with a low GPA, there are several people (including me) in my college (very competitive one) who joined FAANGs (Google, Apple, Facebook) graduating with 2.x GPAs. These people (including me) consistently focused on things apart from academics which paid off in the long term (research, CP). My advice would be to recommend based on your experience with the student. He might be relying on you to give him a glowing recommendation, having focused on your lab. I suggest you have a frank conversation with him and understand what his priorities are. – Prajeeth Emanuel Feb 27 at 1:36

This answer may be limited to the US and other places where letters of recommendation have quite a bit of importance. I realize that this isn't a universal.

If you think that a student is performing beyond what the grades would indicate you could, and should, say that. You don't need to explain bad grades, nor assume that the student's chances are lessened necessarily.

Some students do relatively poorly in situations in which there are high risk tests determining the grade. They might actually know the material, but just have issues about testing.

With the student's permission to discuss them with your colleagues, you could ask if they have any evidence that the student can (and probably will) perform past what the grades might indicate.

If you talk to the student, ask why they think their grades are lower than you would have expected.

But graduate study and academic research beyond that isn't about getting grades, but about having the knowledge, skills, attitude, and perseverance to do good work. If you see that in the student you can say that the student has shown performance beyond that indicated by the GPA. Some students, of course, even have learning difficulties that make high grades much harder to achieve, even if they have the knowledge.

I would occasionally write that "I would accept this student for any research task without reservation." That can mean a lot, provided that it is actually true.

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    Definitely true that I trust them to handle research tasks. I'll talk to my collogues to see what they think. Should I be worried about it reflecting poorly on me as a junior rank to recommend someone who has such a poor academic record? The programs they would be applying to include many senior people in my subfield. – RJ Williams Feb 25 at 21:33
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    If you are sure of your judgement, then state it. But be aware that your recommendations affect what you can say in the future. I once recommended a student with poor scores to the doctoral program at Georgia Tech and he did marvelously well and is now faculty at an R1. OTOH I once highly recommended a top student who failed out, but I didn't realize at the time that he was dying of AIDS. I had to deal with that aspect so that my future recommendations were properly evaluated. Fortunately, I knew the faculty that received the recommendation. Not every story is happy. – Buffy Feb 25 at 21:42
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    @Buffy Are you saying your recommendation was substandard because the student was dying of AIDS? – Gregory Currie Feb 26 at 7:21
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    @GregoryCurrie My understanding is that Buffy's recommendation was good, but the student unfortunately could not keep to her/his standards due to serious medical situation. And this had later to be explained to those who did not know about it. – dominecf Feb 26 at 11:16
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    @GregoryCurrie, he was an excellent student in all ways and the recommendation (to a top school) reflected that. But he declined in health soon after, struggled through a year of grad studies and then died. He came back once to visit so I got to say goodbye, at least. We lost one of our department staff to AIDS at about that time also. Sad age. – Buffy Feb 26 at 12:50

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