What do I tell the student in response to a request for graduate school recommendation from an otherwise-qualified student who cheated by copying homework in one of my classes? I am unwilling to write a strong recommendation for this student, based solely on the episode of misconduct. If it hadn't happened, I'd recommend him strongly.

Edit: I was searching for something less blunt than "no" and something a bit less accusative than "no because you cheated." With the help given below, I've decided on the following:

While every recommendation letter I write is tailored to the particular student, all include comments on each of those things I believe are relevant to admissions committees. One of those is academic integrity. In your case, a comment from me on academic integrity would likely be fatal to your application. For that reason, I must decline to write such a recommendation. I am confident that you can find professors who can write strong recommendations, and I wish you the best in the future.

Edit: The question identified as a possible duplicate whether whether the professor is obliged to write a recommendation for the student who cheated. My question is about the best way to decline.

  • 6
    Was the student punished for the cheating? Did he seem remorseful? Has he cheated again? If the answers are yes, yes, no, why not let it go and write him the strong recommendation? If you didn't follow through on the cheating incident at the time, that was your choice which you seem to regretting.
    – mkennedy
    Commented Feb 18, 2017 at 19:19
  • Can you help me understand your question? Do you find it awkward to say the obvious, or what? Commented Feb 18, 2017 at 22:06
  • @mkennedy I did follow through at the time; the student received a penalty grade and a report to the student conduct office. I never caught the student cheating in my class again. I do not know about other classes, and cannot find out.
    – Bob Brown
    Commented Feb 18, 2017 at 22:06
  • @aparente001 Yes, it would be awkward for me to say the obvious. I had formulated an answer similar similar to JeffE's answer below and am seeking an easier path. There probably isn't one.
    – Bob Brown
    Commented Feb 18, 2017 at 22:08
  • 2
    Possible duplicate of Writing a recommendation letter for a student I reported for academic dishonesty
    – Vikki
    Commented Dec 4, 2019 at 23:04

4 Answers 4


If you are willing to strongly recommend the student for graduate study, despite his past cheating offense, then tell the student you are willing to write the letter, and then write the letter.

Otherwise, tell the student you are unwilling to write the letter, and then don't.

Your edit clarifies that you are unwilling to write a strong recommendation letter, because of the student's past academic misconduct. I suggest telling the student, "I am unwilling to write you a strong recommendation letter, because of your past academic misconduct."

  • Ah! My question wasn't clear. What do I tell the student? (I've edited the question.)
    – Bob Brown
    Commented Feb 18, 2017 at 17:30

I'm gonna write an answer picking up on mkennedy's comment.

"If it hadn't happened, I'd recommend him strongly."

Okay, you get to think about why you'ld recommend him strongly, if this homework copying hadn't happened. Is he/she that good (from other work that you have seen) that, not only the student, but the department the student is heading for would be better off with him/her than without?

In a previous answer to a similar question I recommended to the prof to:

  1. Talk to the student. (I would have done this the moment he/she approached for a recommendation.)
  2. Warn the student that the recommendation might include this incident (including any positive outcomes), but maybe not.
  3. The prof needs to search his/her own soul about "crime and punishment" or "infraction and redemption" and how he/she feels about the student's rehabilitation,
  4. and, independently of the incident, the prof needs to search his/her own head about this student's performance in your discipline.
  5. Ultimately this prof needs to decide whether or not the cosmos would be better off writing the letter or not. That is not synonymous with whether or not the student would be better off or if the academe or in your discipline would be better of, but may be very closely related to that.
  • 2
    The professor may be restricted from discussing the incident in the letter - see the inability to find out if there have been other incidents. I would change point 2 to request the student's permission to discuss it. Commented Feb 19, 2017 at 4:15
  • A nice, thoughtful post... but it doesn't answer what the OP asked. Commented Feb 19, 2017 at 19:38
  • i think points 1 and 2 answer the question, but the content of what the prof says in 1 and 2 have something to do with what is in points 3, 4, and 5. the prof simply has to decide, knowing everything that he or she knows, whether the planet and the human race is better off with this student advancing to the sought graduate program or not. if not, the prof should tell the student that he won't get a recommendation from the prof. if yes, the prof needs to reconcile the notion that the world is better off with his knowledge that this student had, in the past, done something reprehesible. Commented Feb 19, 2017 at 20:09
  • 1
    I'd have to decide not only whether program and student would be better off, but also whether I would be better off if I wrote such a letter. I would not. The difference is between forgiving the act of misconduct, which I'd be willing to do, and concealing it, which I am not willing to do. I'm fairly certain that anything I'd write which mentioned the misconduct would be fatal to the application.
    – Bob Brown
    Commented Feb 20, 2017 at 13:41
  • 1
    @robertbristow-johnson I think you are conflating "not reporting" with "concealing." I have chosen not to report the misconduct by declining to write the recommendation. If I wrote a recommendation that did not mention the misconduct, then I'd be concealing it. It is the latter that I will not do.
    – Bob Brown
    Commented Feb 20, 2017 at 20:25

Dear (name of student),

For complex reasons, I would not be the best person to write you this recommendation. However, I think you will be a good match for that program and wish you all the best in your future endeavors.

  • 6
    it's not so complex. Commented Feb 19, 2017 at 3:57
  • @robertbristow-johnson No, but OP is having trouble being direct. Saying it's complex shows the student that OP feels somewhat conflicted. Commented Feb 19, 2017 at 3:58
  • 1
    Saying it's complex just misrepresents the reason to the student. It isn't complex. The OP's possible conflicts aren't any of the student's business.
    – user207421
    Commented Feb 19, 2017 at 7:32
  • @EJP - If you can handle this situation with a simple, bald approach, more power to you. OP stated he is not comfortable doing that. He also seems to be uncomfortable being open about his reason for refusing. But at the same time, he wants to convey some level of positive support. My answer is designed to communicate a refusal to write the letter, a reluctance to discuss openly the reasons for refusing, and nevertheless the well wishes the OP does feel for the student. Obviously, OP can adjust the exact wording to suit his personal style. Commented Feb 19, 2017 at 16:38

Why not tell the student that, if you would were to write a letter it would be strong but you would also feel obliged to mention the issue of academic misconduct?

After all, the point of letters of references is to provided additional information beyond what’s on the transcript, so you’re on solid grounds when not limiting your discussion to final grades.

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