On my web page, I ask students who want a letter of recommendation to talk with me about it. I also ask for specific information, such as what classes they took, how they distinguished themselves, etc. The purpose, of course, is to write strong letters for the good students and to encourage others to ask someone else.

Today I received an automated letter of recommendation request (from the institution to which he applied) for a student who graduated years ago from a different institution. I know from my own records how he did in my classes, but I have no other information available. I have no contact information for the student.

I can write a semi-strong letter based on grades alone, I can ask the institution to which he applied for contact information, or I can continue to try to track him down some other way. (I've already tried the usual methods of Google, Facebook, etc.)

Should I write the semi-strong letter, contact the institution to which he applied, or do some third thing?

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    The "third thing" that comes to mind is to contact the student...
    – ff524
    Commented Dec 6, 2016 at 16:55
  • 6
    @ff524 OP states that he doesn't have the contact info for the student. You could just decline to write the letter. That way, the student gets notified and he can find someone else, or contact you himself.
    – Sana
    Commented Dec 6, 2016 at 16:57
  • 19
    If literally all you have to go on are his grades, it seems perfectly reasonable to decline to write the letter until he contacts you. They already have a copy of his grades. Does he have an older university email you might easily find? Otherwise the burden should be on him. It's bad etiquette in all fields, not just academia, to have an automated LOR sent to someone without asking.
    – Jeff
    Commented Dec 6, 2016 at 17:03
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    It seems to me that for privacy reasons, you ought to have the student's explicit consent before sending a letter. I don't think the automated request qualifies. Can you see if the university where you taught him has his contact information? Commented Dec 6, 2016 at 17:17
  • 13
    If you would normally want to write a letter for this student if only they asked first, another course of action is to wait a bit, particularly if the deadline for the letter isn't particularly soon; it's possible the student did not realize their application submission would automatically send requests to the referees. It is still bad form for the student to not ask ahead of time, but their request might be forthcoming.
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented Dec 6, 2016 at 17:18

4 Answers 4


I would do the "third thing" of nothing. You're not under any obligation to write letters of recommendation, and to me, the student's signing you up to do this is similar in principle to your department head signing you up for an extra committee assignment, or someone signing you up to volunteer for a public lecture, without discussing it with you first. I write this as someone who puts considerable time and effort into recommendation letters -- two that I care considerably about in the past 24 hours, for example.

Of course, it may well be the case that the student has no idea that writing a recommendation actually takes work, and it would be nice to contact him/her, but you've already tried the simple routes to this. I would devote my time to other tasks.


I would just be honest. You teach many students and this particular student you taught a long time ago. Their grades were X and that puts them in the top Y percentile of the year, etc etc. No record of academic misconduct. Seems like one of the better students to you.

What I wouldn't do is try to fake all the usual character stuff by having a chat with the student over Facebook. Your intentions are noble, but I don't think the outcome will live up to those intentions.

  • 5
    The problem with this is that such a letter really wouldn't help the student. Commented Dec 6, 2016 at 17:41
  • @ff524 There's a specific FERPA exemption for disclosure to a school to which the student has applied. Also, the student presumably supplied my name and email address as a referee, which seems like consent to me.
    – Bob Brown
    Commented Dec 6, 2016 at 22:20
  • @BobBrown Good point about the FERPA exception
    – ff524
    Commented Dec 6, 2016 at 22:46
  • 2
    @BrianBorchers I think that's fine. You are not under any obligation to "help" the student. I think the obligation is to the person receiving the letter that you are being honest and truthful to what is essentially THEIR request, not the student's... Commented Dec 7, 2016 at 0:29
  • @WetlabWalter I make it a point to only agree to write letters of recommendation when I can give the student a positive recommendation. Under circumstances like these I wouldn't have agreed to write a letter for this student if he/she had contacted me and asked for a letter. I certainly wouldn't write a letter without having received a request from the student. Commented Dec 7, 2016 at 1:02

That's happened to me in the past, and from a student that I would not have written a letter for. In that case, because I could not endorse the student, I contacted the student and told him that I would not be responding to the request in any form, even just to tell the requester that I would not be providing a letter.

In this case, the student seems average, and had the student complied with your process, you might have agreed, so the situation is different. That said, putting down your name as a recommendation without your consent or even contact (... though you might check your junk mail folders) does not convey a level of maturity that would make me comfortable endorsing the student.

My own action, given that you've already done your due diligence in trying to contact the student, would probably be to take no action, and completely ignore the request -- at least until you've been contacted by the student. If contacted by the student, I'd probably say that I was unable to write a letter.

  • 4
    Instead of ignoring the letter it is probably better for everybody involved to contact the institution and explain why you cannot provide a letter. The student should have contacted you before listing your name as a reference, and you not being able to provide a letter is a direct consequence of that.
    – Louic
    Commented Dec 6, 2016 at 17:38
  • 1
    I though about that for the case that came up, and though that would go more toward torpedoing the student's opportunity more than just telling him I wouldn't write the letter. Commented Dec 6, 2016 at 17:56
  • 2
    @LouicVermeer Depending on the committee, contacting the institution and saying "I don't know this person well, so I can't write a letter" might be taken as a mark against the student. (e.g. as if you wrote a weak letter.) Simply not responding isn't going to (directly) count against them. Hopefully at some point the student will get a "we never received a recommendation letter from X" message, at which point the student will either attempt to contact you directly, or will find someone else to do a last-minute letter. - It depends on if you want to impose "consequences" on the student or not.
    – R.M.
    Commented Dec 6, 2016 at 17:57
  • @ScottSeidman some places, like the one i worked before ( Indra Systems) , might just phone the institution the appliant studied in, ask for a official contact email and/or phone of the tutor / teacher they're interested in, and just call or phone them, without even asking the student for a reference. It wouldn't be the first time a teacher has approached me with " Hey, i got called by company X, the (institution) Secretary gave them my phone , told them you were a good student. They could have just emailed... "
    – CptEric
    Commented Dec 7, 2016 at 8:20
  • @R.M. I see your point but not sending anything will delay the application a lot, with the risk of other candidates being hired already, depending on the institution. I would personally opt for what I proposed but your suggestion is reasonable as well.
    – Louic
    Commented Dec 7, 2016 at 10:24

Here's one alternative course of action, grounded on the principle of 'assume good faith'. It seems you can no longer contact the student (though as mentioned by Scott it's worth looking at your junk mail folder), but the institution can.

As such, it seems to me that the most constructive starting assumption is that the student attempted to contact you but that a technical glitch of some type occurred. As a response to this, you can then write to the institution explaining that you cannot write a reference, and why, in a way that will prompt them to tell the student to contact you again.

Thus, the ideal there is you write directly to the institution saying something like

I am afraid I cannot provide this reference at present. I normally [link to personal page] ask students to contact me directly before asking for reference letters but it seems that in this case the student's contact may have failed to reach me. (This is unfortunately possible; we had some [white lie] trouble with our email service last month.) As such, I should ask you to ask the student to contact me again.

This leaves you with no obligation to write a letter you don't (and shouldn't) want to, it leaves the institution with a better idea of the situation, it prompts the student to follow the proper channels, and it leaves them with only a small loss of face with the school. (And, frankly, that one is well deserved.)

I'm not completely sure this is the best course of action (as opposed to the ones in the other answers) but it's something to consider.

  • ...Best answer! Commented Dec 8, 2016 at 5:38

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