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I taught a large class last summer, and one of my students asked me to write a letter of recommendation. I said yes, and at this point I think it is too late in the application process to change my mind.

The student got an A in the class, but never came to my office hours or talked to me at all before she asked me for a letter of recommendation. She also hasn't done anything specific to distinguish herself. At this point I'm really not sure what to write about her, although she did give me a "brag sheet" with information about her interests and previous projects.

How should I go about writing the letter?

  • 4
    Well, start simple. Given the information you got, do you think she can be successful in a PhD programme (or whatever she is applying for)? – 101010111100 Nov 13 '16 at 19:13
  • Well, she's mostly applying to masters programs in computer science, and she did well in her classes, so I assume she would do well in future classes. – user64774 Nov 13 '16 at 19:19
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    I'd call her an "autonomous student"... There is no point in wasting your office hours if she can understand the material without them. – Bakuriu Nov 14 '16 at 9:37
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    Did you ask her what she needs the recommendation letter for? You say you don't have any informal relationship with her, this can be in favour or in disfavour for the job she'll be applying for, so maybe you can ask her this, in order for you to know whether or not you could mention this in the recommendation letter. – Dominique Nov 14 '16 at 10:39
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    If you don't know the student that well you probably should not be writing a recommendation letter. – JoErNanO Nov 15 '16 at 0:40
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Here's my understanding of the issue: A student, who you do not know very well outside of the classroom, asked you for a recommendation letter, and you said "yes."

So, assuming you thought highly of the student's performance in your course, you write the strongest letter you can under these circumstances.

This means you focus on the student's performance in your course, and compare the student's performance to the performance of others who have taken the course. If your course is particularly challenging in some way, you may also extrapolate on how the student's performance is indicative of some key strengths which are relevant to the student's target grad programs.

There is no need to overthink this, and if the student is not successful in getting into a good grad program, and they think it is because you weren't able to vouch for them the way that they would prefer, then, if they're a fast learner, they'll ask someone else next time.

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    This is a good answer. I would add that the student's "brag sheet" is irrelevant -- you're only commenting on things you have direct knowledge of, in this case the student's performance in your class and information about what the class is like. Also: I always point out in advance to students like this, who I have never encountered outside of class, that my recommendation letters will be rather minimal, and I encourage them to also (or instead) get letters from people who can add other insights. – Raghu Parthasarathy Nov 14 '16 at 0:21
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    The opening "I'm not sure what the problem is" seems a little harsh, and entirely unnecessary. Especially since you then go on to give a perfectly cogent answer to the OPs question. – Jeff Nov 14 '16 at 14:49
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    Does "I'm not sure what the problem is" sound rude to native English speakers? To me it just sound like stating the fact that he is trying to guess the exact intention of the question. Am I missing anything? – Pere Nov 14 '16 at 19:18
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    It does to this native speaker. – Reid Nov 14 '16 at 20:04
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From a comment by the OP:

Well, she's mostly applying to masters programs in computer science, and she did well in her classes, so I assume she would do well in future classes.

Great, that's an important piece of information.

Now, since you are saying she didn't do "anything specific to distinguish herself," you can probably use more general information to support her application.

E.g.,

  • How do you assess her intellectual capabilities compared to other students who you've supervised or worked with?
  • Can you say anything good about how well she interacts/works with others?
  • What do you think of her commitment to postgraduate study; do you think she genuinely likes the field(s) she is choosing?
  • How do you rank her ability to organise a workload, resilience, creativity, etc. compared to her peers?

If you are really struggling to write anything else besides, "She is a good student," it may be worthwhile to have a brief talk with her, to discuss how you can strengthen her application.

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    If you can add anything to back up your assumption, do. For example, have students who received lower grades in your class recently gone on to similar graduate programs and succeeded? If so, saying that in your letter would be very helpful to her application. It could also help to give additional detail about her A that might be indicate a particular strength for graduate school. Was any part of the grade based on a large-scale project, a presentation, or an assignment that was writing-intensive? If so, and she received a high grade on that part, point it out. – Steve Kass Nov 14 '16 at 1:43
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Simply be open and straightforward with the student. Pose this as a problem that you need to solve together.

You can ask her to come by your office during your office hours so you can talk more. Draw her out about why she wants to go to grad school, or what she thinks is an exciting current problem in computer science.

Learn about her life. Is she the first in her family to go to college? Did her 6th grade teacher discourage her from her dream of being a US senator because she was a girl? Is she a veteran of the war in Afghanistan?

You can ask her for more materials to help you learn about her, such as a copy of her statement of purpose. I had a professor when I was an undergrad who asked students who wanted a letter to write a first draft of the letter -- it was surprisingly hard, and a surprisingly good exercise.

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    This is the best answer. Don't write a letter for a student that you don't know. If it's a large class, have then come talk to you in person so that you can get to know them. – kmm Nov 14 '16 at 3:08
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    I disagree. The purpose of a letter of recommendation is to get the recommender's assessment or advocacy of the student based on what he/she has learned from the student's performance, and / or interactions with the student. Asking "Is she a veteran of the war in Afghanistan?" and then writing in the letter "She was a veteran of the war in Afghanistan" conveys nothing -- it's simply parroting what the student could herself write (better!) in a personal statement. – Raghu Parthasarathy Nov 14 '16 at 3:15
  • I don't think there's anything more you could get from talking with the student that would help you write an honest/accurate letter of recommendation. The other answer is much better. – R.. Nov 14 '16 at 3:36
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The student got an A in the class, ... She also hasn't done anything specific to distinguish herself.

I would say that getting an 'A' in the class might be considered distinguishing enough - unless an unusually large proportion of the class normally gets an 'A'. You can say that she is an independent learner requiring little support to get to her current standard. You marked her work: you can comment on its readability, suitability, conciseness and other qualities. In other words, it shouldn't be a difficult task for you to write an academic recommendation for an 'A' student! (or what's the point of the student getting the 'A'?)

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Mad Jack already covered most of the content you should include in your letter, but I'll add an extra point that you can develop.

You could explain why your recommendation actually matters.

Any student can ask for a letter from a professor and will most likely get one. Explain why your letter is a big deal. An example : "This Class is one of the most challenging in the entire College, as it is the best way/one of the best programs to enter [Category of job the student is looking for]. I only accepted to write [Your question seems to imply One] letter for all [100 ? Add the exact size of your class] students, since this person has shown special capabilities/talent." Then you can discuss the person's quality, as per Mad Jack's answer.

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