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A promising student of mine has asked me to write them a letter of recommendation for a research internship they are applying to. I believe the student is a very good candidate for an internship, but outside of class, I have not had many significant interactions with them. That being said, they have already completed two classes where I was their instructor, and now in another course that I teach.

One of the applications specifically mentions (emphasis mine)

These letters should come from individuals who can speak to the applicant’s suitability for this program, for example a faculty member familiar with the student's academic record, or a faculty member or research lab leader who can address the student’s aptitude for research. At least one of your letters of recommendation should come from a faculty member or MD, PhD, or MD/PhD research supervisor who can speak directly to your aptitude for research.

I mentioned to the student that since he has not done research with me that I may not be the best fit to write a letter of recommendation for him for this internship. The others do not mention this, so I do not see any problem. Is this grounds for me to decline the students request?

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  • Are ther undergraduate research opportunities at your institution? Do you oversee any undergraduates doing research for you? Would you take them on in such a position?
    – Jon Custer
    Commented Jan 24 at 15:36
  • There are multiple undergraduate research opportunities at the institution I teach. I currently have two undergrads working for me doing research, but this student is not one of them. Based on his class performance, I would not have any qualms with initiating a research opportunity with this student, but it's hard to say more than that. I've had students work for me in the past who did well in class, but were poor researchers.
    – WnGatRC456
    Commented Jan 24 at 15:55
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    I removed your last paragraph -- better to have one question per post, and your second question is really too broad to be a good fit here. If you have more specific questions about dos-and-donts when it comes to writing the letter itself, feel free to make a new post.
    – cag51
    Commented Jan 24 at 17:44
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    I often get requests from students in my lecture class who I have no personal relationship with. What I do is be upfront about it: Tell them that you can write a letter stating (e.g.) they did well in your class, good attendance, etc, but that a strong letter often goes beyond what people can glean from a transcript and writing sample. Still, it's often unreasonable to expect that students will develop close relationships with multiple faculty, so if they just need a letter to fill the minimum I can write one. 50% of the time I don't hear back the other 50% I write a bland but positive rec
    – Jeff
    Commented Jan 28 at 18:40

4 Answers 4

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You should be fine as a letter writer as long as the student has someone with whom they have done research who will also write for them. Not every writer needs to be a research supervisor and one or two letters attesting to the overall competence and resolve of a student should be fine.

Just be honest, in the type of contact you have had, their performance, and in your prediction of their eventual success. The last is very important. You can somewhat judge that just by thinking about the interest they have shown in the ideas you have presented to them.

If the student has no research experience, they may not be a great candidate for the position, but you can still write a supporting letter. It may be the best option they have. In particular, don't decline if they have no better (more appropriate) writer. Do what you can for them.

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    Correct. Not everyone has had the opportunity to do research. Everyone has a first research experience.
    – Jon Custer
    Commented Jan 24 at 15:26
  • I'd add "ask a senior colleague" to the end of this question to handle the "Where can I go for resources on what to include?" Old PhD advisors aren't embarrassing resources for this question either, at least from my perspective.
    – user176372
    Commented Jan 24 at 15:34
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You should write the letter.

  1. It's the job of the people at the research internship to decide if the undergrad is a good candidate or not. Your job is to write a letter, not pre-screen their candidates.
  2. The undergrad has to play the cards they have: if they have no research experience, then they don't have the option of asking someone to talk about that. Maybe this will kill their application, but it's possible that they have other strengths that make up for their lack of experience. Again, that's the job of the people evaluating applications, not yours.
  3. The instructions you quote are boilerplate stuff you see on most instructions to letter writers. I've written plenty of letters for undergrads in the same position and they still get the job/internship/whatever.

The only time I refuse to write a letter is when it's a waste of time, e.g. a C- student asking for a med school letter, or someone with no research experience applying to a high-level research job, etc. Otherwise, the job of the letter writer is to be honest.

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    Great advice all around. I do think it is tentatively okay to pre-screen for certain highly competitive scholarships like Goldwater or NSF GRFP if students basically have no real shot at them, but in theory those students should not be encouraged to apply to those anyway. I have seen some cases where students with 2.x GPAs were for whatever reason encouraged to apply to those types and predictably were not considered for the scholarships. Commented Jan 24 at 21:02
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This was originally a comment that I am turning into an answer, since I think this is a pretty dangerous take on the role letter writers play. Refusing to write this letter would be a big disservice to the student, specially given their strong performance. Our role as letter writers is to attest to our students' or mentees' performance, rather than to try to manage the way they make use of it.

In this specific case, it seems like while focusing on the bold text, you're ignoring the part saying that "for example a faculty member familiar with the student's academic record". When writing recommendation letters you should ask students to send you all relevant information that may help you get a better picture of their profile to strengthen the letter. If you have done this and know the student personally as a teacher, you fully satisfy the condition above and should have no reservations writing it.

Ultimately, your role is not to micromanage the details of the student's application (whether someone else is writing as a research supervisor or not), but to provide an account of the student from your perspective. Pointing out this detail to the student is valuable, but anything more than that is not really your concern. Let the committee decide whether their application satisfies the requirements or not.

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I agree with the other answers, I just want to more directly address a couple of points you made in the question.

but outside of class, I have not had many significant interactions with them

But you have had significant interactions with him during class? Significant enough to know that he is a promising student, anyway. Seems good enough to me.

he has not done research with me

The bolded criteria are met if you are "a faculty member [...] who can speak directly to [his] aptitude for research". Here's Wiktionary's definition of "aptitude":

  1. Natural ability to acquire knowledge or skill.

  2. The condition of being suitable.

You don't have to have direct experience of his research (if he has done any with other supervisors), what matters is whether he can learn how to do research; whether he is suitable for research. If you have seen that he has skills relevant to doing research, or skills that would be required for learning how to do research, then you can speak about those skills.

So even if you are to take the boilerplate literally, word-for-word, it seems to me you are a good fit to write this letter of recommendation.

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    He actually confirmed with me that he has not done research with other faculty, but that is due to him double majoring in biomed and mechanical engineering whilst being involved in sports. He has maintained a steady 3.8 GPA throughout so that speaks well of him as well.
    – WnGatRC456
    Commented Jan 25 at 19:07

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