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Letters of recommendation - be honest or constant praise?

Discussion in 'Off The Beaten Track' started by CantALoop, Dec 30, 2010.

Is it okay to mention room for improvement in letters of recommendation?

  1. Yes/Maybe/Sometimes

    15 vote(s)
  2. No/Never

    24 vote(s)
  1. CantALoop

    CantALoop Well-Known Member

    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?
    Last edited: Dec 30, 2010
  2. Squibble

    Squibble New Member

    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.
  3. Aceon6

    Aceon6 Hit ball, find ball, hit it again.

    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.
  4. Allen

    Allen Glad to be back!

    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.
  5. overedge

    overedge doing shots in the Grublets on Ice dressing room

    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.
  6. GarrAarghHrumph

    GarrAarghHrumph I can kill you with my brain

    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.
  7. CantALoop

    CantALoop Well-Known Member

    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.
  8. overedge

    overedge doing shots in the Grublets on Ice dressing room

    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.
  9. nerdycool

    nerdycool Well-Known Member

    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.
  10. CantALoop

    CantALoop Well-Known Member

    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.
  11. JumpinBug

    JumpinBug New Member

    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.
    skatefan and (deleted member) like this.
  12. manhn

    manhn Well-Known Member

    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.
  13. Garden Kitty

    Garden Kitty Tranquillo

    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.
  14. Matryeshka

    Matryeshka Well-Known Member

    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.
  15. altai_rose

    altai_rose Well-Known Member

    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.
  16. michiruwater

    michiruwater Well-Known Member

    I'd agree with other that if you can't write a letter - a good letter - then you probably shouldn't write the letter at all. I know that when I have asked for Letters of Rec, I was putting a lot of trust in that person to help me to the best of their ability, and that I expected that if they did not feel they could recommend me they would not write it. If I knew my trust was misplaced, that would have been awful. This person is placing that same trust in you. Especially since it sounds like this kid has a lot of very positive qualities. You had an easy time explaining those positive qualities here - just expand on them a little more in the letter itself, and leave out the few issues you had.
  17. agalisgv

    agalisgv Well-Known Member

    When I do rec's, I always give a copy to the student to go over before submission. If I've left something out or mischaracterized something, I want the student to have the opportunity to correct it.

    Is the equivalent of saying 'please don't admit this person.'

    The way recs tend to be read is: "What is being highlighted/praised and to what degree?" It's assumed there won't be negatives in it. Not to be harsh, but your rec also reads as rather unprofessional. This is a formal recommendation and shouldn't be written in a colloquial style (as it currently appears).

    So I would rewrite the rec to sound professional (omit contractions, phrases like, "It's not to say...", etc.), and omit any negative characterizations. You said the student stayed over 8 hours if lab experiments ran over--mention that in the letter. You said the student showed commitment--mention that. You said the student's final lab presentation was impressive--mention that. None of that appears in your current letter, yet they accurately describe the student's work under your guidance. Then I would say something like the student has been successful in outside activities such as sports and other academic endeavors.

    The basic question you have to ask yourself is, "Do I want this student to have a chance in college?" If the answer is yes, then you write a letter to give the student that opportunity. The letter as currently stands will not give the student that opportunity. If you don't want the student to have that opportunity, then you shouldn't be writing a letter in the first place.

  18. CantALoop

    CantALoop Well-Known Member

    Thanks everybody for your input! :kickass: I'm glad I ran it by such a variety of helpful and constructive opinions. :respec:

    So I've decided to write the letter and not mention anything negative, because I do have an overall positive view on the student.

    In the end, I shouldn't let the mistakes that happened this summer prevent them from getting into the university of their choice. This was just one summer out of their whole high school career, and the positives outweighed the negatives. The errors in the lab are minor compared to holding this kid back from their educational dreams.

    Plus, it's not like I was a shining picture of responsibility in high school (or as an undergrad) :shuffle:
    manhn and (deleted member) like this.
  19. Japanfan

    Japanfan Well-Known Member

    ITA. And when you get called on the phone as a reference, it's the same thing. Even when you are asked 'what is the person's weakness', you should frame it as a positive.

    If you can't put forth a totally positive recommendation, you should give the person a chance to find another reference who will.
  20. Gazpacho

    Gazpacho Well-Known Member


    It sounds like you have a favorable impression of the kid and want them to get into one of their applied-for universities. And it sounds like if I were an admissions officer, this would be someone I'd want in my school. So why are you considering dealing a possible deathblow?

    Here are my suggestions on how to address the areas for improvement that you mention.

    "X worked an average of __ days a week at my lab...." or "X worked an average of __ hours a week" or "X worked between __ and __ hours (or days) a week depending on his/her other commitments"

    Then mention that when s/he was there, s/he would sometimes stay over 8 hours if the experiments went long. This conveys that the student wasn't there every all the time without blaming the student.

    Leave this out but speak with the student about it.

    You said they ended up making a good contribution to the lab and a good final presentation. Sounds to me like they achieved plenty during the summer. They're in high school, sheesh!


    "X showed great ability to manage time effectively, as s/he not only worked in my lab but also participated in sports and community service over the summer. Clearly, s/he has the ability and motivation to excel at many things. I hope that at while at your school, X will discover his/her true passion.

    Naturally, I hope that passion will be academic research. I was already impressed with what X accomplished in just one summer while juggling many other commitments and can only imagine how much s/he would have accomplished without all the other commitments. S/he shows great potential, and I have high expectations for what s/he can accomplish during the next four years and beyond if s/he chooses to dedicate him/herself to research.

    I am confident, however, that whatever X finds to be his/her passion to dedicate him/herself to, s/he will be extremely successful in those endeavors."
    Last edited: Dec 30, 2010
  21. CantALoop

    CantALoop Well-Known Member

    It wasn't that I want to deal a deathblow or prevent this kid from entering college, but I read the other letters of recommendation X provided as examples and some of the language seemed so overly laudatory that it seemed almost disingenuous. I initially thought that maybe if I pointed out that X is an extremely talented kid but still has room for improvement, my letter would appear more honest and be taken more seriously.

    I think I was just initially turned off by such over the top phrases such as "my greatest fear was that I could not properly do justice to support this outstanding young person" and "I cannot think of a better candidate for ____. X will help shape the nature of what it means to serve in the 21st century." that I couldn't help but roll my eyes at such statements and felt the need to somehow balance my letter to avoid sounding like that.
  22. briancoogaert

    briancoogaert Well-Known Member

    The thing is that other students will find someone to write them a very very good letter. So, if you are not convinced 100 % that your student is the best, it will be seen in the letter and other students with a better letter will be ahead. So, if you are not convinced, don't write it. ;)
  23. Gazpacho

    Gazpacho Well-Known Member

    I like to believe that my letters are taken as honest even though they are always positive because I try to back up statements with facts and examples. I would decline to write a letter if I couldn't write a positive one.

    I pulled out a recent letter I wrote for an excellent student, and it went like this:

    *I am writing to recommend.... X was a student of mine for....

    *Information on the course: type (upper-level, requirement for majors, etc). General material covered. I mentioned that there were writing assignments and a group project because I thought that would be relevant to the position she was applying for.

    *"X performed at or near the top on all assignments and finished in the top 3% of the class. In particular, she showed strong writing skills...." I wrote another letter for a student who had a great personality but only got a B. In that letter, I mentioned how great his contributions to class discussions were. He was the absolute funniest student I have every had, and just thinking about him makes me smile. To make this more substantial, I wrote that one of his project groupmates said that doing the project was so fun because he was in the group.

    *"X has a warm and humble personality and was always exceedingly polite in our private interactions. During these conversations, she expressed her deep interest in art...." [student was applying to an art gallery internship]

    *"I honestly cannot think of any weaknesses that would hinder X's performance as an intern. Her intellectual talents, personal qualities, and passion for the fine arts, I believe, would be exceedingly valuable to your organization" This really was true for this student. It wasn't an exaggeration. I didn't say this in the other student's recommendation. Instead I said, "Y was a delight to have in class, and I will miss his sense of humor and good nature. I am confident he will bring as many smiles to your office as he did to my class."
  24. mashenka82

    mashenka82 New Member

    I voted Maybe. I think overall, all of these items that are room for improvement should be mentioned to the student so they know where they can improve and work on it. I think that for an undergrad application it's ok to mention something like this so long as a) it's been mentioned to the student already and b) it's not the overwhelming thought but rather something that you can see the student improving by going to this undergrad institution. So Gaszpacho's idea is perfect because you are kind of putting in the weakness that you speak of, but you are saying that it's something he/she can easily improve, and focusing on their strengths.

    I think when you agree to write a recommendation it means that you stand behind this person and believe they should get into whatever school they've asked you to write the letter of rec for. As someone who has asked for letter of recommendation when I was applying for undergrad and more recently for my MBA, I expected the letters to be positive. There were certain MBA programs that actually asked the recommender for a weakness, and the recommenders wrote things that were not deathblows to me, but mentioned things in a way that showed that I could improve in those areas by getting my MBA.

    I understand that you don't want to be superfluous and flowery, but understand that most other people will be, so while you are trying to be honest, it may hurt the student because your letters are viewed against those overly positive letters.

    There are different levels of being positive so you don't have to say that this kid was the smartest and best you've ever had if that's not true, but do focus on the positives that speak to them.
  25. Garden Kitty

    Garden Kitty Tranquillo

    The other letters do sound a bit over the top, but I wouldn't try to counterbalance that with your letter. I'd stick to the positive comments, and leave any recommendations for improvement to the in person feedback you give to the student directly.

    Gazpacho's point about backing up your statements with speicific facts is very useful and helps ground the letter in reality. You mentioned that the kid could work independently, highlight that. You said his final presentation was impressive - maybe describe what he prepared and what made it good (clearly written summaries, ability to draw logical conclusions etc.)
    millyskate and (deleted member) like this.
  26. Rhianna

    Rhianna ...Her?

    I'm in the process of getting everything together to transfer from a 2 year school to a 4 year school and one of the things I've put quite a bit of thought into is my letter(s) of recommendation. It's tough because as mirchiruwater said, I'm thinking of professors that seem to actually like me, that I've had a lot of one-on-one contact with, plus of course professors where I did well in their classes.

    This is not the kind of thing I am hoping to receive in these letters. However, I'm not going to go to anyone right before these things are due and ask for a recommendation. Honestly, CantALoop, it seems to me like you're a little hesitant about writing this letter and as such I would say don't write it. It's really not your fault that this student waited until the last minute to get letters of recommendation.
  27. mikey

    mikey ...an acquired taste

    Agreed. I write a lot of letters of recommendation, and they are all positive. But the being said, some of them are clearly more positive than others, and I am pretty sure that the reviewer can read between the lines.
  28. alexikeguchi

    alexikeguchi Well-Known Member

    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.[/QUOTE]

    This. It's important to consider the context in which this information will be reviewed. I do alumni interviews for local applicants to my alma mater (Yale), and we are specifically instructed to gauge how the student stands in relation to the overall applicant pool as well as to our former classmates. Thus, we are judging them on the qualities that would predict a successful college career, such as academic potential, intellectual curiosity, dedication, creative thought, and ability to work independently. Although those same qualities will likely predict a successful career, we are not specifically assessing high school students for suitability in a particular job. If this were a post doc applying for a tenure track position, his lack of 100% commitment to his research would be an issue, and it would be correct either not to write the recommendation or to communicate your areas of concern if given as a reference. However, I don't think it is fair to judge a college applicant, whose career path is not decided, for not being quite so narrowly focused. The question is whether he met or exceeded the standard that was expected of a high school student. It sounds as if he did, so I would simply say that and recommend him without reservation.
  29. aliceanne

    aliceanne Well-Known Member

    I think you need to put this in perspective. This is a teenager applying to college for the first time. The university wants to know whether this student has the ability to succeed at their school and what criteria you used to reach that assessment.

    If you don't belive he can succeed or have reservations you shouldn't write the letter. He is 17, they know he is immature and has room for improvement - that's why he is going to college. Personally I think including negatives will make you sound indecisive. You don' t have to praise him for qualities he doesn't have.

    The big question in my mind would be how did he react when he made mistakes or was crticized by you? Did he respond positively? If so, this could be away to address the need for growth and improvement.
  30. CantALoop

    CantALoop Well-Known Member

    I did put this into perspective (post #18). Also, the more people say I shouldn't do something, the more inclined I am to do it :lol:.

    So I did what Gazpacho said to do - state concrete examples and use those for my argument instead of flowery language. After all, using facts to back up our statements is what scientists do :) Like mashenka said, there's different levels of positive, and I made it as positive as can be without being over the top like saying this student will find the cure for cancer or something ridiculous like that.

    At first the student did listen to criticism, but started to make excuses (like I did at that age :lol:), but I didn't dwell on it because there was more work to be done. Before they left, however, I did mention that I saw they were stretched out between commitments, and told them "Look, I know that your advisor or whatever wants you to be a superkid, but you can't be everywhere at once. Figure out your priorities now because your senior year will be absolutely crazy." When the student came back yesterday to pick up the letter, they said, "You were exactly right about things being crazy." I guess my advice finally sunk in.

    FWIW, the student said the letter was the best one out of the five because I used actual examples instead of compliments, and is including it in all their applications :)