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I am a student.

I received a request for a letter of recommendation to a professor for some award. I know for a fact that my letter will be directly used in the application for the award. [I have since graduated from this institution.] I haven't interacted with this particular person in about 3-4 years, and feel that I couldn't write the strongest one, since my interactions with this person were not much outside of classwork (two classes).

It looks like someone else is requesting these letters; how do I politely reject the request? I am particularly not interested in burning any bridges, since I may consider getting a career in academia in the future, but I haven't asked this particular professor for any recommendations (nor do I plan to do so in the future).

Update: I have decided to write the letter. Appreciate all of the feedback here.

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    I don't see what prevents you to give a honest (lukewarm ?) recommendation letter with maybe a note to the Prof that you may not be the most qualified person to give him recommendation, but here you are. – Greg Sep 14 '15 at 8:24
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    I don't understand why a prof will ever need a LOR from a student. – Ooker Sep 14 '15 at 11:10
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    @ooker - I once wrote a letter for someone who was applying for (and later received) a teaching award from a national organization. – Joel Sep 14 '15 at 11:21
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    Are you a student or an Alumni of the institution? – Mindwin Sep 14 '15 at 17:02
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    @Ooker I wrote two rec letters for professors of mine who were going up for tenure, as part of the "teaching" segment of their tenure portfolio. – D.Salo Sep 15 '15 at 2:06
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If you want to decline to write, then it would be reasonable to reply to the person who requested the letter, saying something like: "My interactions with Professor X were three to four years ago and involved very little interaction with him beyond attendance at two of his classes. So I do not consider myself to be in a position to provide useful information for award Y."

24

The most polite way to decline, in this case, is to just not respond at all. As a student, you have no obligation to write letters for faculty members. So, if you don't want to write a letter, simply do not respond to the request. It is common for people to request letters from former students for awards or tenure applications, but it is also common for students to not respond, so nobody will think it is unusual. They are unlikely to harass you if you don't respond.

On the other hand, if you have anything you'd like to recount about the professor, you should consider responding. Even if you do not feel you could write the strongest letter, for many situations the mere presence of student responses is considered. Having had two classes with the professor, you can likely say something about his or her teaching, interaction with students, etc. I can say that I was very flattered by the fact that students did choose to respond when letters were requested for me in the past. But the decision is yours, of course.

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    I take issue with the idea that intentionally not responding to a personal request is ever polite. – David Z Sep 14 '15 at 4:37
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    @DavidZ - But responding by saying, "Dear Sir, Nope. I am not writing a letter for you", won't be particularly polite either :P I think Oswald is suggesting trying to chicken out of the odd situation - not having to take a stance at all. – 299792458 Sep 14 '15 at 6:10
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    @TheDarkSide sure, but one could always respond "Sorry, I don't think I can do that." Though I suppose it's possible that one may find oneself in a situation where there is no polite way to respond to something! – David Z Sep 14 '15 at 6:47
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    @DavidZ Given that he has not interacted with the professor in 3-4 years, it seems unlikely that the request is really personal, but rather has been sent to a large number of previous students of the professor. – Tobias Kildetoft Sep 14 '15 at 7:30
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    I think this is a huge problem in academia: people think not responding to an email is polite. – Ander Biguri Sep 14 '15 at 12:58
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It's possible that you're not in a position to judge whether your letter would be the strongest one. Perhaps they are specifically looking for a letter from a student who's taken classes for him, and they don't have all that many good options to choose from.

I would suggest that you write back that you are not sure that you would be the best person to write such a letter of recommendations [because of the reasons you described here], but that if they would still like you to write one, you would be happy to write a supportive letter. (Of course this answer assumes you liked the classes you took from him and that you would indeed write a positive letter!)

In summary: try to give a good idea of what kind of letter you would be writing, and let them decide if it's the kind of letter they would like to include in their application.

  • Why make them (and you) go through an extra round trip. Write the letter, and add a cover letter to the requestor explaining you can only comment on the classes you took some years back, telling them to use the letter under that proviso. – vonbrand Sep 14 '15 at 18:02
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You should write the letter. Most likely an administrator wants to know what you think of the professor's teaching. Having taken two classes with the professor, you may know better than anyone else how the professor teaches.

  • Please see the italicized part I added to the original post and let me know if that changes your opinion at all. – Clarinetist Sep 14 '15 at 1:30
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    No, though it depends on the type of award. – Anonymous Physicist Sep 14 '15 at 1:48
  • Without giving too much away, it is a national award. – Clarinetist Sep 14 '15 at 1:49
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    @Clarinetist, there presumably are local and national teaching, research and even textbook writing awards. The point for us to be able to answer is what the award is for (if for research or textbook writing, it looks like your letter would be irrelevant; for teaching it might be relevant; but perhaps it is for "being an all-around nice guy"...), not who is giving it. – vonbrand Sep 14 '15 at 18:05
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It's entirely possible that you were picked because you had only a class or two with this professor. Sometimes that's how things work.

I was once helping to run an evaluation for a professor who was up for tenure. This is a MAJOR deal which takes months of effort; your whole publication record is carefully examined, as are all of your course evaluations, etc. Letters of evaluation are solicited from other professionals in the field, from co-workers, from students, etc. We went through class enrollment records and deliberately picked more than one kind of student: some who had worked very closely with the professor, and some who had had only a class or two with him.

One student wrote back and said, "I don't think I'm the right person to write this evaluation, because I had only one class with Dr. Smith." We had to write back and explain: no, dear, that's actually exactly why we picked you.

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    One other comment. Years after I left teaching, I still occasionally had former students write to me asking for letters of recommendation. I just had to do the best I could. Sometimes my recollection of the student had grown dim, and I had to go through boxes and dig out old course records to find some facts about the student so that I could give the most accurate evaluation I could. You really should do it. Evaluating people who you've known or worked with is just one those professional things you have to do sometimes. Sometime you'll need someone to do it for you. – kurisuto Sep 14 '15 at 17:24

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