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A former MSc student asked me to write her a recommendation letter, so that she can apply for a PhD position. Although I feel that she is bright and dedicated, I only teach her in a hands-on course which last for 2 weeks. Sadly, during Corona time, we can only work online. Therefore I do not have a strong opinion about her. Should I proceed or inform her that I may not give a recommendation that she expects (Of course I will still say positive words but obviously not outstanding)?

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I suggest that you let her know that she probably has other, better, options and that the best recommendation letters come from those who know her, and her work, well. They need to make a positive recommendation of the likelihood of her success and that, while you have a generally positive opinion, you don't have sufficient knowledge to do a good job.

Write the best letter you think is honest if she insists. She may or may not have better options in fact.

Informing her of how such letters are evaluated can help her make the best application, even if you aren't the recommender.

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I would suggest you create a system for providing letters of recommendation. For example, before providing letters, I have:

  • known the requestor for at least 9 months,
  • read or reviewed at least one of their manuscripts, and
  • participated in at least one professional function (e.g., class instruction, research, conference presentation, article) with them.

I also ask them to write the rough draft for the letter. I then edit the letter to reflect my understanding of the requestor - this also acts to identify those people with an active interest.

Cheers,

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