I asked a professor for a letter of recommendation for graduate programs and she mentioned that she normally doesn't write letters for people who haven't done research with her. I took advanced classes of hers and did well though, and she agreed to write the letter, although hesitatingly. She mentioned that she normally only writes letters for people she's known for a while, so even though I did well in her coursework, am just now embarking on research with her, and have a history of tutoring for her class, it doesn't seem to be enough in her eyes. She also mentioned that she would have me write most of it and that she would basically just sign off on it.

Is this a warning sign? Should I turn to someone else to write the essay? A lot of the professors I've had left the university or were not full time professors, which is why I don't think they would be good people to ask for letters, so it's really hard for me to find recommenders right now that would be appropriate. Any advice would be appreciated.

Edit: Wanted to clarify that she seems like she had good intentions--she was willing to expand more on my teaching and ability to convey higher level concepts to new students, but that this type of letter is not the kind of letter she normally writes. Having seen the opinions of everyone, what is a good way to gauge whether or not she actually wants to write the letter?

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    she normally doesn't write letters for people who haven't done research with her — Good for her! — she would have me write most of it and that she would basically just sign off on it — No, no, no, a thousand times no.
    – JeffE
    Oct 9 '15 at 11:16
  • Related: academia.stackexchange.com/questions/16529/…
    – Aru Ray
    Oct 9 '15 at 20:52
  • @JeffE What level of involvement do you think a good recommender should have? My dept. has been in constant upheaval since I've arrived which is why it's hard for me to find a strong recommender. The only one other professor who has remained in the dept (and I know well) is someone who is a mentor, we've engaged in research discussions and I've also done well in his classes. I've only asked the female professor to write the letter for a specific program, and would be happier to switch to someone else for the other (later) deadlines if others think this would be a better idea.
    – MHan
    Oct 10 '15 at 0:36
  • Both the reluctant one you've already asked, and the mentor you've had discussions with, are good candidates to approach. You are limited in your options. These two people, while perhaps not ideal, seem to be the best peaches in your basket. // Since she's doing you the courtesy of allowing you to write the draft, perhaps she'll go one step farther and either let you see the final draft before sending it, or tell you if she made any significant changes. At that point, if you find the letter is actually unhelpful to whatever it is you're applying for, you could then withdraw it. Oct 16 '15 at 3:01

Suggesting that you write the letter and she will just sign it could be the professor's way to drive home the message that she does not want to write this letter of recommendation. I feel she is really unwilling to write the letter and probably hesitatingly agreed either because you were insistent or because she felt an outright refusal might seem rude. It would be better not to push her to do something that she does not want to. In your place, I would definitely look for another professor.

  • To clarify, I had asked her after a discussion regarding a research project we're beginning. I don't think I was pushing her--I just asked her quite frankly and she hesitated to think about it, but seeing the responses, I'm not quite sure how I would even go about asking if she was really interested in writing the letter for me. Any advice as to how to ask questions that would give me a better feel for her willingness to help?
    – MHan
    Oct 10 '15 at 0:26
  • It's also possible that she feels that she doesn't know the OP well enough to tell the story they want to tell, and is thus asking the OP to do it. This isn't an uncommon reason.
    – Fomite
    Oct 10 '15 at 4:24

I also have the same policy for the following fact: doing well in coursework does not necessarily equate to doing well in research; e.g., a student may be very good at passing exams but can't do project work. I need to see a student in a research setting in order to write a meaningful letter. Otherwise, the reference letter will simply be a consolidation of what the coursework marks already say.


I have written my own letters many times, and had it explained to me that it's a common courtesy to provide the first draft out of respect for the mentor's time. It also allows you to tailor the focus of the letter to be relevant to your upcoming opportunity (win for you and time saver for your professor). As long as she has the opportunity to edit/add/remove before sending it, this would not concern me.

I would be concerned about her hesitation in writing in the first place. You would have to use your own judgement to discern whether she hesitates to recommend you, or truly hesitated because she is not used to being asked for non-research letters. If you feel good about the work you did, and believe it was valued, write a letter that mentions the specific things you did that make you exceptional. It will remind her about how great you are, while also pointing it out for future prospects. But beware, a hesitant professor may be trying to soften the blow of telling you they would not recommend you highly, for whatever reason. You need to consider those possibilities, or even ask her directly and respectfully.

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