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I had a colleague who asked a professor to write a letter of recommendation on his behalf. The professor agreed and wrote 3 letters for this colleague. The colleague had an interview with one of the colleges he applied to and he came to know that the professor wrote that he doesn't know him very well.

My questions are: why would a professor agree to write a recommendation in the first place?! And what is the effect of this letter on one's application?

I asked him to write one on my behalf, and he might have written similar statement.

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    My question is: Does the professor know your colleague very well? In other words, did the professor lie? – scaaahu Jan 15 '15 at 9:40
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    There seems to be an implication here that "I don't know the student very well" is somehow damaging, rather than a mere statement of fact. If I know you only because you did well in one of my classes, or only because you published a groundbreaking paper in my favorite journal, I don't know you very well, and admitting this up front seems entirely sensible. – JeffE Jan 15 '15 at 12:13
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In many cases professors agree to write letters for students we do not know well because we are the best option, according to the student, for them. Some students do not have good enough relationships with enough professors to get all the letters of reference they need. They may approach a professor and say, "I know we do not know each other very well and I only took a class with you/worked in your lab for two weeks/etc, but I need someone else to write a letter and I think you are in the best option I have". At which point, the professor may agree. If the student is not as up front, hopefully, the professor was clear and said something like "I don't know you very well, but I can write you a letter and talk about X." Again, some students will agree.

While it is not desirable to have references from people who do not know you well, including in a reference that you do not know the person well is not inherently bad. In fact, it probably is better to be up front about the relationship because it explains why the letter is so narrowly focused.

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If a student whom I don't know very well asks me for a recommendation, then I point that out to the student and suggest that it would therefore be better to ask someone else for a recommendation instead. But if the student, aware of the situation, still wants me to write the letter, I do it, and I include in the letter the information about how well (and in what circumstances) I know the student.

  • I strongly echo! Your approach seems to me an "upright" one; for you directly let the student know what he may get before you do it. I guess this is what @user18244, or maybe many students, might expect. The term "recommendation" can be understood both as recommendation and reference. In the OP's case, the professor regarded such a letter as a reference letter, so that only truths are stated. – Megadeth Jan 15 '15 at 15:24

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