14

I only agree to write a reference letter if I can write a positive one. Although it is only hypothetical at this point, I would hesitate to write a reference letter for an individual who chooses not to waive their right to see it. That said, I have sometimes shown students my letters for them since I feel it is useful for them to know what I have written. It also provides them a chance to remind me of things I may have forgotten. I do not do this consistently, but am considering making it a personal policy.

I guess I have two questions. Is there a reason not to show a student their letter of reference? Just to be clear, this is for a letter I have written for the student and not for a reference I have recieved. The second question is, is it reasonable to refuse to write a reference for a student when the student does not waive their right to see the reference.

  • Would knowing that the subject will read your letter change the way you write it? – Thomas Apr 8 '16 at 2:18
9

Is there a reason not to show a student their letter of reference?

One important reason is if you make direct comparisons with other students, which is one of the most useful things you can do in a letter. If you say "this student is even more promising than X, and perhaps comparable with Y, but not quite as strong as Z", then it doesn't seem appropriate to tell the student. Even if your letter doesn't name anyone specific, but instead says "this student was among the top two in a class of twenty-five", it still leaks a little information about how other students performed in the class.

Even aside from direct comparisons, you'll be making implicit comparisons if several students compare the letters you wrote for them to see whose is more enthusiastic. That doesn't raise the same ethical issues, but it's still awkward. I have no interest in telling students my private opinion of how they compare with each other.

The second question is, is it reasonable to refuse to write a reference for a student when the student does not waive their right to see the reference.

Why not? The fundamental question here is whether you ever have an obligation to write a letter. In general I'd say no, although there are cases in which it would be offensive to refuse to write for anything less than very serious reasons. (For example, Ph.D. advisors owe letters to graduating students.) Under most circumstances, refusing to waive the right to see the letter sounds to me like a fine reason to decline to write one.

There are also all sorts of intermediate options you could choose. For example, you could tell the student you would have to write something like "I warned this student that I could not write a compelling letter if he did not waive the right to see it, because I would be unable to compare him with other students. He insisted that he needed a letter from me but was unwilling to waive this right, so I will do the best I can. I can confirm that he received an A in my class and has sufficient preparation for further study in this field."

2

Yes, that's two questions.

Yes, you can and should decline to write a reference letter if the student does not waive his right to see it because the receiving institution will discount the letter and it will be a waste of your time.

Since you should never write a bad reference letter (you should decline instead) there is no reason not to provide a copy to the student. Tell them to be cool about having received the copy.

Here is what I tell students: http://ksuweb.kennesaw.edu/faculty/rbrow211/recommendations/index.html#waiver

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.