View Full Version : Letters of recommendation - be honest or constant praise?

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12-30-2010, 12:45 AM
So I work in academic research, and a high school student that worked with me this summer asked me for a letter of recommendation for his undergrad applications.

This student is incredibly intelligent and was able to do things during the summer that I never got to do as an undergrad. They learned quickly and was able to work independently after only a few weeks.

That being said, this student is also an archetypal high-school overachiever - excelling academically, in sports, and in other extracurriculars. The bad thing is that during the summer, they were competing in sports and doing a major service project, so sometimes they couldn't come in or could only work half a day. That being said, while the student was here they would be committed, sometimes staying over 8 hours if our experiments ran long. This kid was so tired from all their activities that sometimes they would fall asleep in their chair. Additionally, few samples, reagents, and experiments were ruined because this student had a major tendency to forget.

But in the end my overall impression was a positive one because their final results were useful and their lab presentation summarizing their work was impressive.

So I had planned to write a letter that is mostly positive, but include a mention that

"X is well rounded, excelling in academics, athletics, and community service. X did all of these while working in our lab, and although they showed great ability to manage their time effectively, I can't help but think with their potential and quality of work, that X could have achieved even more during this summer. It's not to say that they spread themselves too thin, but rather that I hope that while at _____, X will discover what truly interests them, and I have the confidence that once they find their priorities, that they will be extremely successful in their endeavors."

I could easily omit that and just include nothing but the positives, but it really nags at me because there was room for improvement.

So in short: is it okay to mention flaws/room for improvement in an otherwise positive letter of recommendation?

12-30-2010, 01:02 AM
If you agree to do a letter of recommendation, you are implicitly agreeing to *recommend* that student while being totally honest in what you do say. Negatives should be omitted (and can often be sensed by the reader anyway).

The time to give constructive criticism is when the *student* can hear it and benefit from it, not when you are communicating with a third party at that student's request.

12-30-2010, 01:20 AM
I voted maybe. I won't do anything negative for a student or first year... I'll just comment on what they're good at or politely decline if they're really terrible. That said, I work in field where folks move around 4 major employers. The managers at our competitors may be former colleagues or bosses. My rep is at stake if I send a glowing letter for someone who might have a few areas where they're not very strong. In that case, I'll do "X is very well suited to positions involving A, B, and C. He needs more direction when working with D and E." That way, the hiring manager can make a decision on whether the person will work out. If I don't mention D and E, and the person doesn't work out, I'd feel terrible about sticking another employer with my problem.

12-30-2010, 01:26 AM
If I cannot give the student a 100 percent positive recommendation, I do not agree to write the recommendation. I make some allowances for normal college age things, but if a student had poor attendance or attitude, I am just not going to write the recommendation. If I think they can handle the program and did a good job in my class, I write them a strong recommendation. I recently turned a student down based on the program she chose, but offered to write a recommendation for a different program. She took me up on the offer and I wrote her a very nice recommendation.

I take recommendations extremely seriously because a student can either get in to a program or not based on the recommendation. If you state that the student had room for improvement, just know that you could potentially tip the scale against a student getting into the college of their choice.

12-30-2010, 01:54 AM
I would tell the student exactly what you have said here...that generally you were impressed with their work, but that there were problems. And tell him/her that's what you would put in a letter, and then ask them if they want you to write that letter. S/he may have stronger letters that would balance out your "room for improvement" points, or s/he may not want to take the chance and instead find a referee that will be more positive.

Frankly, I would be more worried that this student thought it was OK to overcommit to so many activities that they missed work hours and fell asleep when they were there. I don't think I would write a letter of recommendation for someone who couldn't decide what was most important to them and concentrate on doing an outstanding job at those few activities.

12-30-2010, 02:01 AM
Since showing up for work and being awake while there is pretty much core to any of the basic requirements I'd have for an employee, I could not write a recommendation letter for this student. I'd need to tell him that.

In other words, I know this kid did great on X, but his outside activities impacted some pretty core things about his job performance. Can you even write this recc letter, or must you decline? If you can write it, you need to talk to the student first. He needs to know. Then he can decide if he still wants you to write this.

12-30-2010, 02:04 AM
Frankly, I would be more worried that this student thought it was OK to overcommit to so many activities that they missed work hours and fell asleep when they were there. I don't think I would write a letter of recommendation for someone who couldn't decide what was most important to them and concentrate on doing an outstanding job at those few activities.

That's what's bugging me the most...but the student is pretty desperate because I guess they didn't have enough letters for one university, and the deadline is on the 1st. :eek:

I'm thinking I'll keep this positive because it's about getting into this university in the first place, after which they can do whatever they want. I guess if they decide to use me as a future reference to work in another lab, then I might tell them about the student's strengths and weaknesses.

12-30-2010, 02:13 AM
That's what's bugging me the most...but the student is pretty desperate because I guess they didn't have enough letters for one university, and the deadline is on the 1st. :eek:

I get what you're saying, but on the other hand you're doing the student a favour, and the student not getting their letters of recommendation together on time and being desperate isn't really your problem.

12-30-2010, 02:31 AM
You also can't assume this student will keep the same amount of extracurriculars once they go to college. For example, I was ultra involved in high school. Sports, band, orchestra, & other miscellaneous clubs kept me busy on top of my homework. But once I got to college, my extracurriculars dropped dramatically because there's so much more emphasis on academics that I just didn't have time.

That being said, I'd give a positive letter just so they can hopefully get in, and let them worry about what happens after. But I also would privately mention to this student your reservations about their work vs. play priorities.

12-30-2010, 02:46 AM
I don't think it was work vs. play, but rather this student just didn't realize that they can't do everything and be everywhere at once.

I think it will be positive, but relatively brief. I don't want to leave in the criticism if the admissions board will hang on it, but I don't want to paint an overly rosy picture either.

12-30-2010, 03:28 AM
If you can't recommend, don't bother writing the letter. And don't damn with faint praise either.

His career could hang on something in high school, which is absurd. And many students burn the candle at both ends in order to get into the program they want, so they can get the career that they want, and feel a success. How many of us wouldn't have the job we have now if we were being judged on how things were in high school?

As someone else suggested, talk to the student about your concerns, and keep the letter positive. Or don't write it at all.

12-30-2010, 03:36 AM
Oh gawd, if people judged me on my work performance during my high school years (just saying, but the Real Canadian Superstore is EVIL! and food courts are EVIL too!), I would never have gotten another job ever.

Garden Kitty
12-30-2010, 03:54 AM
It sounds like the kid had a good attitude, worked hard, was very smart but perhaps bit off more than they could handle. I'd make sure that I'd talked with the student about the importance of fulfilling obligations, paying attention to details, etc., but I'd write a letter that focused on the good aspects of the kid's performance (willingness to work hard, quick learner etc). I wouldn't say anything that wasn't true, but I'd focus on the positive.

The kid was in high school and this may have been their first real job. I'd probably have different expectations for a college intern or someone hired for a full time job, but a number of the problems you highlighted sound like things that hopefully were a learning experience and won't repeat.

If you believe that you need to write a "not overly rosy" letter then you'd probably do the kid more of a favor by not writing the letter.

12-30-2010, 04:01 AM
This is a high school kid, and most college-bound kiddies are told to be well-rounded and do as many weird, far-flung activities as possible. I don't think it's fair to penalize this kid for doing what his counselor(s), parents, other teachers,other studnets, every getting-into-college-book says to do. I also think a kiddie falling asleep, especially a male teenage kiddie, is not a huge deal. If he's doing it when he's 25, it's a problem, but at 17 year-old overachiever? Meh. Kids and labs in summer...results are going to get botched.

I would ask him what his major is going to be and talk about what he did well in the lab in relation to that major. He'll learn his limits in college, or he'll fail out. Either way, it's not your fault for writing a recommendation. You did say overall you were impressed with his performance, so I could write a rec with an easy heart.

Try doing a google search for recommendation templates--that should give you an idea of what is good/not good to write.

12-30-2010, 05:21 AM
I think you can be honest--but focus only on the positives. Because your overall impression was positive and you'd (I assume?) be glad if the student was accepted this university, I'd write the letter so that it would help him get into the school.

And lab experiments? I, a first year graduate student, will still too often mess up an experiment due to lack of knowledge/experience or fatigue. I've messed up too many times to count. :) If he's a high schooler in lab, I'd cut him quite a lot of slack.