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I received an email from a student today. The email said that she was applying to a program, and that she needed her professors to fill out a recommendation form. She added that it shouldn't take long, because it should be easy to fill out. The deadline is exactly a week from today.

I am currently away from my institution, and will not return until her deadline, so this already puts me in a tight spot. She was also a weak student, maybe in the top half, but by no means a memorable one.

So I replied very quickly to her email (within 30 minutes of receiving her email), telling her that 1) if it's just the form, I can do it in a week; 2) if she needs a letter, I cannot write her a good letter within a week; and 3) overall, although if she insists I will do the job, she is advised to ask someone else for a letter.

She responded in a half-sentence, saying "it's just the form" So I asked her to send me her CV, transcript, and any relevant application materials. She has not responded yet.

I made a mistake here, though, because I was so busy that I did not open her attachment, thinking that if it's just a form, it should be easy to fill out. Now that I opened the form, I realized that I have seen this form before. I have already filled out this form for another student, and furthermore, I have written a detailed letter for her, because the form has an "additional comments" section that is very short (that I assumed had to be interpreted as a recommendation letter). I even asked about this letter here: Should I write that a student is a feminist in my recommendation letter?

So now I am facing some tough choices.

Should I still agree to just fill out the form for her? Given that I have already written a strong letter of support for another student on top of the recommendation form, this will be a death sentence to this other student's application since her grades on the form will be lower, and she will not have a letter to supplement it (however, the first student is a lot stronger in every dimension that I am qualified to assess them on).

I could email the student again, and tell her that because of the above reason, I cannot even fill out the form because it is too weak and that she will surely not get in.

Or, I could just do a half-assed job of writing a recommendation letter for this student as well, although the letter will have to be very generic and neutral, as I have none of her application materials, I do not remember her well, and I am also pressed for time since I am at a conference all week. Even physically sending the letter will be a pain since I do not get back until the day of the deadline.

So I am once again turning to you, hoping that I can get some quick answers (if I decline to write the letter, I had better let her know soon, so that she can find someone else). What should I do?

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    Why is filling out the form a second time a death sentence for the other student? I assume you won't be giving this one as high marks as the first. – Ric Oct 3 '16 at 2:51
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    If you already felt that you were not the best person to do this, whether you fill the form now or write a letter will probably be equally bad for the student. If I were you I would tell the student that the form is actually more than "just a form" and thus your point 2) for declining to help her applies. – Drecate Oct 3 '16 at 3:26
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    "She was also a weak student, maybe in the top half" I'd love to know what you think of the bottom half then! – Lightness Races with Monica Oct 3 '16 at 11:16
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    @LightnessRacesinOrbit that bell is very bent. – Mindwin Oct 3 '16 at 12:53
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    I don't understand. The deadline is exactly one week. You told her it would take a week. You asked her to send me her CV, transcript, and any relevant application materials. She has not. Why are you even worrying about this at this time? – emory Oct 4 '16 at 0:04
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You seem really to be overthinking this. You're writing a recommendation -- you're not the student's full-time advocate or cheerleader. Fill in the form, send it in, be done. If you want, to mirror the structure of the other student's application, write a supplemental letter also for this one, just a paragraph or so -- shorter than what you've spent time on in your question here!

By the way: there is nothing at all wrong with having your recommendation for one student look worse than another's if you believe the former is actually worse for the program than the latter. In fact, I've often explicitly written on recommendations that A and B are both applying, and that A is stronger than B. Your job is to help provide an assessment with which the program can make a fair choice among applicants.

  • Yup, the issue is that most things I could use in the letter (past exams etc) are locked up in my office in a different city, and as I do not remember the student very well, I don't feel comfortable even starting that letter before going back to my home town. – Sana Oct 3 '16 at 3:36
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    @Sana - You could use this as an out, if you decide you want out. – J. Doe Oct 3 '16 at 4:43
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    @J.Doe, no, I don't think he can use that. That ship has sailed. If he wanted to use that excuse, the appropriate time was before he said yes. – Nicole Hamilton Oct 3 '16 at 6:58
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    @NicoleHamilton Fully agreed. Retracting on a promise for being a referee is in my opinion a strict no-no. The student told you it's just the form - so you fill just the form and add, if you have nothing to say, nothing to the "additional comments". That is fine; not sending the recommendation is not. – Captain Emacs Oct 3 '16 at 7:53
  • @J.Doe OP is female, as stated in a previous question. academia.stackexchange.com/questions/77540/… – user10033 Oct 3 '16 at 21:16
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In my opinion, you should do the best you can within the time constraints to write her a supplementary letter, making as strong a case you can while still being honest. Here are a few points informing this opinion:

  1. There's nothing ethically wrong with giving the obvious impression that you think one student is better than another, while supporting both.

  2. Having said that, if you give one student an "extra" letter and not the other, it could be interpreted as a signal that you specifically don't think the weaker student deserves to be selected.

  3. You already suggested that she ask someone else, and she hasn't, which probably means you're her best option.

Alternatively, you could try to find the email address of someone involved with this application process, explain the entire situation to them, and ask for guidance.

  • 1
    I have a feeling that I am her best option too (as shown by the sense of urgence in her first email, followed by silence when I requested her transcript and other application material). Should I insist that she send them to me asap? If she doesn't send them to me in the next week, do I do the best I can? I am not even sure if I support her, to be honest, and I had really hoped that she would get the hint and ask someone else. – Sana Oct 3 '16 at 3:22
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    @Sana Do the best you can. Now that you've said yes, it's the professional thing to do. But if she can't be bothered to send you her materials, you have even less reason to feel guilty about writing her a bland, cookie-cutter letter. – user37208 Oct 3 '16 at 3:52
  • that sounds fair. I will write to her to point out that I do indeed have to write a letter, and that it would help her a lot if she sends me the material. Regardless the letter will be pretty generic, though. Thanks for your advice. – Sana Oct 3 '16 at 3:54
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    Just be honest in what you will write. Mention that without the student's transcripts, it will be wholly generic bland since you do not have access to the material that will help you remember what the student did. You can mention, at best, that the student did not stood out as a bad student, but no specific accomplishments will come to mind to really help the application. – Nelson Oct 3 '16 at 4:00
  • You also have to realize some students really do not care, so they do the absolute minimum. – Nelson Oct 3 '16 at 4:01
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Presumably, she already knows what her grades are, you did not promise to make any claims that were not true but you did promise to write the recommendation. The time to say no because you don't think she's a strong candidate or because you're too busy was when she asked and before you said yes. Similarly, you don't get a pass because you don't read email or attachments.

Let her know that, on reflection, you're concerned that your recommendation won't be as strong as either of you might like and offer her the opportunity to choose a difference reference. But be prepared to learn that you're as good a reference as she's got and that you will have to write the best recommendation that can be supported by the truth, no matter how much you'd like to get out of it. You promised, so keep your promise.

One way of doing this without stretching the truth or saying anything she might not expect is to focus on reporting facts rather than opinions, e.g., the actual grades and ranks in the classes she took with you and descriptions of the assignments she did for you.

Learn from this and think first next time before saying yes.

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    Thanks for the advice; no need to be patronizing, though. – Sana Oct 3 '16 at 3:35
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    @Sana - This answer doesn't strike me as patronizing. What did I miss? – J. Doe Oct 3 '16 at 4:44
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    @J.Doe The last paragraph ;-) – Massimo Ortolano Oct 3 '16 at 6:25
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    @Sana, sometimes you have to say no when someone requests a reference. I've had to do that sometimes (including once only a couple weeks ago) for students I really, really like and who I know really, really like me and who I wish I could recommend but can't because I know I can't write what they need. It's not fun, but it's something you have to learn. You might post a new question, how do you say no without being cruel or seeming uncooperative, and I'll address that. – Nicole Hamilton Oct 3 '16 at 6:53
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    @Sana I am afraid the poster is right and I do not see them as patronising - as you accepted being a reference writing, and you saw too late what's required, there are some elements in the current situation which are of your making. The fact that the student missed some things does not matter. Also, in principle, it is ok to make mistakes, we all do. But your current mistake has the potential to be very costly to the student. I think that's the message in this response. Anyway, good luck with the case. – Captain Emacs Oct 3 '16 at 8:02
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No idea if this is helpful, but how about:

Fill in the form, and add in the comments box that you intend to write an additional letter (as you did previously) but cannot get it done in time for the deadline because you're at the conference. Send the letter a few days later.

  • The letter does not have to be long for a student only known from lectures (rather than projects). One, two paragraphs are pretty sufficient if in doubt. No one expects one to know a student (say) out of 100 well. – Captain Emacs Oct 3 '16 at 8:06
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I believe the standard response when you don't feel able to write a strong recommendation letter is to say, "I don't feel I know your work well enough to write a strong recommendation, and you would be best served by finding someone who knows your work better than I do." Or something to that effect.

When a student receives this somewhat coded response, she can say Thanks anyway, and approach someone else, or she can try a little harder with you. At which point you could either stand your ground, or relent and write her a lukewarm letter.

What complicates your current situation is that you already said yes, and now you are trying to figure out if you can, and should, back-pedal.

The options available to you, that I can see, are:

  1. Back-pedal, and send her the above message. You could apologize for sending an incomplete response previously, having glanced at her email in a cursory way without really taking it in before responding. Or whatever excuse you care to give.

  2. Tell a white lie. Apologize and explain that your week has gotten more complicated than you anticipated, and you're not going to have time to do her form. If you choose this one, the email you send must be very brief and apologetic, and should contain a couple of spelling mistakes, to look authentic.

  3. Invent an illness or an illness in your family that prevents you from making her deadline. This is a variant of option 2.

  4. Tell her honestly that when you agreed to do it, you thought the form was going to be shorter than it turned out to be. Explain that you had not opened the attachment until now. Point out the "comments" question. Explain that you don't know her well enough to tackle that question, or explain that you don't have enough time to do anything more than check off boxes and fill out short response questions.

  5. Proceed with filling out the form, knowing that your recommendation will not be very strong. Do not say anything to the student about how lukewarm your recommendation will be. Remember that this is not the only program she will ever apply to, and your responses in the form are unlikely to change the outcome of her application one way or the other.

As you are considering your options, you may want to try to apply the Golden Rule. In other words, what would you want Prof. Sana to do if you were Prof. Sana's less-than-stellar student?

What do you think would be most helpful to this student in the long term? You know more about this than we do, because one can only fit so much into a post, about the student's potential, temperament, ambitions, reasons for a mediocre performance, and hopes and dreams for herself.

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    I like your answer because it's an honest one. However, I don't like option 2 and option 3. I think a professor should not lie to the student about the recommendation letter. If I were the student, I rather hear the professor tell the truth to me and then I can find someone else to write the letter if it's not too late. – scaaahu Oct 3 '16 at 5:06
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    Backpedaling on a reference promise is a clear taboo. It's the OP's fault not checking the reference requirements, not the student's. I've let a lot of things slide, but never a reference on which the career of a student may hinge. We do not know this for sure, as the student is not brilliant. We cannot judge how strict the acceptance criteria are. However, without a reference, the student fails at the basic check and is guaranteed not to be accepted. Do write the reference, even if being bland is the only thing you are able to be. – Captain Emacs Oct 3 '16 at 8:04
  • @scaaahu - Clarification about my answer. It is an attempt to list ALL possible next steps. This kind of brainstorming can be helpful when a person feels boxed in and stuck in one's thinking during a decision making process. I made a conscious effort to present all the options without introducing any subjective skew, so as to bounce the responsibility for deciding back to the OP. – J. Doe Oct 3 '16 at 13:51
  • @CaptainEmacs - See clarification comment. – J. Doe Oct 3 '16 at 13:51

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