I go to a high school that allows us to attend college classes to obtain an associate's degree. I had this instructor for both physics 251 and physics 252 (calculus-based physics). I feel like he would be a really good reference, had I not cheated on two of his tests in physics 1.

The first time was a test redo that we had a week to complete. I let another student copy my work and he copied literally all of it down to the placement of the work. The second time was an actual test where he did the exact same thing a second time. We took this test before the retest of the last one, so I had no clue I would get caught at all. The third time was a big misunderstanding of the instructions: I used Desmos to graph one of the questions and I had no clue I couldn't.

Despite his anger and frustration towards me and my behavior in the class, he allowed me to stay in the class (I think it was because we went from 30 to only five students). I did not have a single problem in Physics 2 and I ended the class with a B. I am scared he reported me to the college, but I am not sure. I never received a letter, email, or phone call about the incidents.

I feel really bad about the incident and wish that I didn't give the guy my answers. It sucks that I put him in such a predicament.

Should I even take my chances and ask him for the letter? I am scared that he will write me something bad and I won't get into any college, which is 100 percent fair. I have other people I can ask (two calculus teachers and a high school teacher).

  • 83
    Wait, what? Why do you think he would be a really good reference? Commented Oct 2, 2021 at 22:39
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    Relevant (coming from the instructor's perspective): academia.stackexchange.com/questions/81581/…
    – Buzz
    Commented Oct 2, 2021 at 23:26
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    Questions about undergraduate admissions are off-topic here, though this may have some aspects that might be generalizable.
    – GoodDeeds
    Commented Oct 3, 2021 at 2:06
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    "The third time was a big misunderstanding..." So wait, it was actually three times? Commented Oct 3, 2021 at 4:09
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    Note that you say that "I had no clue I would get caught at all" for your second time. It seems that you have still perhaps not learned the lesson, as you mention it as an issue that you got caught, not that it is morally wrong to do. If your instructor got the same feeling about you as I did, then he will certainly write a bad recommendation, as you seem to not have learned that plagiarism is wrong. Perhaps I am wrong in my interpretation, but that is the image you cast, and he may have the same interpretation therefore. Commented Oct 4, 2021 at 9:27

8 Answers 8


From my point of view, the person who enables plagiarism is clearly as guilty as the person doing the copying.

My reputation depends in part on the references I write, and if I want to be trusted with people I highly recommend I could not in good conscience knowingly overlook this. I fully expect that anyone writing a letter I would read would not knowingly overlook such an offense either.

As a result I personally would never accept to write a reference for someone who committed an academic offense in a course of mine, unless the person granted me explicit permission to discuss the academic offense in the letter of reference. As you can imagine, the reference would not necessarily be glorious, as in my mind an academic offense like facilitation reveals extremely poor judgment on the part of the student, whatever his or her academic merit might be.

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    The only reason I didn't give exactly this answer is that (1) this is a high school student who is (2) taking a course at a community college. If the student did an outstanding job in the course academically but was too immature to realize that he was screwing up by passing his work around and not paying attention to instructions, then the instructor might be happy to write a letter saying "good student, has some growing up to do." Commented Oct 3, 2021 at 1:03
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    @ElizabethHenning sure… but the OP did this 3 times so even discounting the last as a misunderstanding this is not a one-time error. Commented Oct 3, 2021 at 14:45
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    It's a little hard to follow the OP's story, but it sounds like 1 and 2 happened at the same time. Unfortunately a lot of high school students don't understand the distinction between acceptable collaboration and cheating. Something that does give me pause is the way the OP seems to blame the other cheater for him getting caught. Commented Oct 3, 2021 at 16:23
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    @ElizabethHenning A lot of university students don't understand the distinction between acceptable collaboration and cheating for assignments, although that's not much of an excuse for a test. Commented Oct 3, 2021 at 17:06
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    @ElizabethHenning I would say the narrative ("so I had no clue I would get caught at all" and "The third time was a big misunderstanding") suggests the student did know it was cheating, at least the first 2 times.
    – Kimball
    Commented Oct 4, 2021 at 15:38

No, even if they were to agree (some people are just too nice to say no), you should not put your instructor in the unenviable position of trying to figure out how to recommend a student they caught cheating twice. You will have to find someone else.

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    Agree. Do you know the word "chutzpah"?
    – Neithea
    Commented Oct 4, 2021 at 18:24
  • @Neithea LOL. Yes, I do. :) Commented Oct 4, 2021 at 19:26
  • (1) Chutzpah is often a good thing. (2) There's no reason he can't just say no. Commented Oct 4, 2021 at 20:09
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    @ElizabethHenning It's not a great combination with cheating. After you've been caught twice, I think humility is probably a better choice. Commented Oct 4, 2021 at 20:17

You have an opportunity, but it is a risky one. It also depends on some things you probably don't know and can't judge about the instructor.

And, it would require a face to face meeting. This can't be done any other way.

But, my view is that it would be worth having a meeting with the instructor, apologizing for your transgressions, and asking for advice about your future.

Teachers are human too, and few of us have no blemish in our past. Some of us remember that we were once also young and foolish. The important thing is to learn to not be foolish in the future.

If you pick up from this conversation that the instructor still supports you and doesn't condemn you forever, then you are in a position to ask for a letter.

I once had an uncomfortable conversation with a professor over a different "transgression" and learned a lot from the conversation and also that he could understand my wish to do better. It worked out.

But if you feel a negative vibe, then there is no point in asking. The conversation might be valuable in any case, especially if it leads to better behavior in the future.

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    Having the conversation is a good, mature thing. But the OP isn't looking to build bridges with this lecturer. He's only interested in this to get the reference letter out of him. If an ex friend came to you saying "I'm really sorry I screwed things up, now please can you give me twenty bucks?" you wouldn't have it, and that's basically where the OP is. Any apology would merely be transactional, not sincere.
    – Graham
    Commented Oct 3, 2021 at 18:39
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    @Graham, I wasn't suggesting to be devious.
    – Buffy
    Commented Oct 3, 2021 at 18:54
  • @Graham As a highschooler who was caught cheating, I never would have had the courage to approach the professor who caught me for this sort of conversation without someone first suggesting that it would actually be appropriate. One of the OP's intents as of writing the question was to get a recommendation letter, but there's no way for you to know "the OP isn't looking to build bridges with this lecturer".
    – Rick
    Commented Oct 5, 2021 at 16:14
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    @Rick The OP has only mentioned the letter as their intent, and no other intent at all. I think that's significant. But what really matters isn't the OP's intent, it's the lecturer's perception of the OP's intent when faced with a simultaneous "I'm sorry I cheated 3 times, and please can you write me a letter of recommendation?" Even the most charitable person could never see that as an attempt to build bridges.
    – Graham
    Commented Oct 5, 2021 at 16:35
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    @Graham I think there's a lot that we don't know. In a class with only 5 people it's quite possible that there is already a bridge, especially after a second class with the professor. If the OP genuinely wants to strengthen whatever relationship is there, I think that could certainly come across, and it wouldn't take any charity on the professor's part to see it.
    – Rick
    Commented Oct 5, 2021 at 19:04

Assuming the guy isn't a total jerk, he is not going to write something that would sabotage your application. But his experience with you is going to color the letter he writes you, and he may refuse to write a letter at all for the reasons given by other commenters here.

If you were a college student, you could pretty much forget getting a letter, but he might be willing to cut you some slack because you are a high school student. If for some reason you think he has extremely positive things to say about you which no other instructor would be able to attest to, then it would be worth approaching him. When you talk to him, let him know that there are other people you can ask instead. If he seems at all reluctant, drop it and thank him for considering it.

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    One nit; this is not sabotage, and the professor's not a jerk. Expecting a prof to lie on your behalf is both unrealistic and unethical.
    – eykanal
    Commented Oct 4, 2021 at 17:01
  • @eykanal And I said that the professor should lie where? Commented Oct 4, 2021 at 17:03
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    Sorry, probably should have tempered that more. Stated differently: Expecting a professor to ignore bad behavior (as in the case of the OP) and write a good letter "just because" is unrealistic.
    – eykanal
    Commented Oct 4, 2021 at 17:21
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    @eykanal I didn't imply that anyone should ignore anything. The OP asked whether he should approach the instructor about a letter, and that was the advice I gave based on the limited and somewhat contradictory information the OP provided. I'm not giving advice about whether the instructor should or should not write the letter, or what should or should not be said in the letter, because that's up to the instructor. But it would be extremely unprofessional and malicious for the instructor to agree to do this and then intentionally write a letter that damages the student's application. Commented Oct 4, 2021 at 19:52
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    To be clear, my comments were directed more to the OP than you. I agree with your answer and particularly the last sentence. My intent was to add color for students unfamiliar with the letter-writing process.
    – eykanal
    Commented Oct 4, 2021 at 19:55

I agree with @Issel: focus less on any possible (if improbable) letter of recommendation, and book a chat with this instructor to seek general advice on proceeding with studies, given your initial failings.

I'm a little puzzled about the exact sequence (your "second" event was on a test that preceded the "first" one?) and I'm really struck by your comment that you "had no clue I would get caught at all" as if getting caught is somehow the root of the problem. Couple this with the third event, which appears to be a problem processing instructions, and it all rather makes you look like someone who perhaps has attention or judgement challenges.

I won't argue about the relative moral/ethical weight of facilitating vs submitting plagiarism, but there is an undeniable functional difference in that at least you completed the work on your own smarts. Since you made it through the second class without further problems, and have bothered to ask us, I think your apparent optimism may be well-founded. And, I have to add, I'm not of the opinion that only those who have an unsullied adolescence should ever be allowed a chance at success.

So have a chat with this instructor, focus on apologizing for your early transgressions and the clean completion of the subsequent course, indicate an interest in proceeding in the field they're working in (most academics have a soft spot for this) and ask him for his thoughts on ways you may proceed. If he looks at you incredulously and reminds you of a number of subsequent delinquencies that you haven't bothered to tell us about, you really have a reckoning to work on. But ideally you'll get some decent advice, at the least an objective view of your capabilities. And you might find he volunteers a reference, of the "on the right track after some initial unfortunate mis-steps" variety. And it's infinitely better to proceed with these events fully disclosed, than to have them discovered later.


This is where you learn how to have adult conversations. I don't think it's a matter of you determining whether or not you should ask, I think you should have a serious conversation with the teacher about the whole situation. It's promising that you took the second class and had no issues. It shows that you learned and grew over time.

You should bring this up to your teacher. Tell him: 1.) you recognize the problems you previously had, and you were wrong. 2.) you did better, and learned from your mistakes and didn't have any problems in his second class. 3.) Ask him if he feels like you have grown. 4.) If he says yes, then bring up your request for a recommendation letter, and ASK HIM if he thinks its appropriate. 5.) If he says yes, then ask him if he would write that letter.

You have to learn that you have certain goals, and other people do as well. A dialouge between you and someone else about how to get what you want is important, even if it's unlikely to get what you want.

Edit: This answer is based on the fact he is highschool, and highschoolers should not be cheating, but a bit of leniency is given considering his age and reformed behavior. If this was college or professional, I would say NOT to ask for this recommendation.

  • For a high school or university student, I would say this is good advice if you stop after #1.
    – Kimball
    Commented Oct 4, 2021 at 15:36
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    This sounds like trying to trap the professor into agreeing. I would feel manipulated.
    – Neithea
    Commented Oct 4, 2021 at 18:22
  • How is communication considered manipulating? To simply ask out of the blue would be absurd, and the teacher may think the student doesn't even realize the nature of what he did. If the student talks it over, admits it, and shows that he has grown as a person, that is a reasonable arguement for giving a letter. Of course, a conversation starts with knowing that you may, or likely, won't get what you want, that doesn't mean you can't have a healthy discussion.
    – Issel
    Commented Oct 4, 2021 at 18:28
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    @Issel - Steps 3, 4 and 5 are manipulation. Lead him into a corner, then spring the question. My view it that it would be chutzpah* to get caught by the prof 2 or 3 times committing academic dishonesty and then ask that very person for a recommendation. (*Chutzpah = being convicted of murdering your parents and then asking the judge for leniency bcs you are an orphan.)
    – Neithea
    Commented Oct 4, 2021 at 20:30
  • @Neithea For a highschool student to grow is to be expected. Each year as a teenager you are not the same person you were before. I did edit to point out that at the college/professional level you are right, perhaps a little bit of clemency for a younger person is not unwaranted. People often say that the point of prison should be to rehabilitated, is there no room in your mind that he might be a reformed person? Besides, I'm not saying the instructor HAS to do anything, only that a case can be made.
    – Issel
    Commented Oct 5, 2021 at 4:35

I think a huge detail that many answerers have missed is that you took a whole extra class from him without incident. Depending on how much time was in between, the instructor might see this as a sign of growth (or, unfortunately, maybe just a sign that you don't like consequences). I strongly encourage you to have a sincere conversation with this person. Openly and honestly share your position. Tell them what you've learned, who you are now, and why you are still considering asking them for a letter. Ask them what they think and whether they would be comfortable. Be real and human. Don't go in with expectations or ulterior motives, but to have an open and honest conversation. After that, each of you can make a sound decision. They can decide whether they are comfortable writing the letter, and you can decide whether you want that letter. Growth and grace are very real, especially at your age, and many academics will see it that way. Some of your best letters can come from people who really KNOW you, the good and the bad. Don't let negative experiences scare you away.

  • Right. And apparently neither the college nor the OP's high school thought the incidents were serious enough to initiate any sort of formal warning or disciplinary action. Kids routinely pass their math homework around because somehow it doesn't seem as much like plagiarism to them. Better the OP learns this lesson now. Commented Oct 6, 2021 at 2:48

It won't hurt to ask. As someone who has applied to bachelors, masters, and phd programs, I have requested many letters of recommendation. Only one time did a prof decline: he basically said "You did mediocre work in my class: I cannot write a strong letter for you. If you really want me to write a letter, I will, but I am probably not the best person to ask."

When you ask a prof for a letter of recommendation, it is implied that you are asking for a good letter: one that actually recommends you. It would be unusual for a prof to agree to write a letter for you and then write a letter that they think will hurt your chances of acceptance. If you want to be sure, ask the professor if they think the program should accept you. That being said, I would be surprised if this prof agrees to do it.

P.s you will probably succeed at college only if you stop cheating, even when you have "no clue" that you will get caught.

  • Depending on the context, a bad letter can be quite harmful. It can definitely hurt to ask.
    – eykanal
    Commented Oct 4, 2021 at 17:02

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