Professors’ Best Kept Secrets: They Won’t Write a Bad Letter of Recommendation

ShhhNobody in any kind of management position will ever write a negative letter of recommendation (at least if they’ve had even the most minimal mentoring).

They might:

  • decline to write it,
  • write a generic one,
  • damn you with faint praise

None of those things are good.

I was surprised to learn that students don’t know this. In the fall of 2012 when I was teaching a course called “Spanish for Professional and Community Engagement,” students concluded the service-learning course by packaging all the work they had done in the community throughout the semester for the job search. They  had to prepare a resume line, a cover letter paragraph, a digital profile, an elevator pitch, and a letter of recommendation request.

To show how important it is to include details of their work & experiences with the recommender in a request for a letter of recommendation, I showed students the generic template I use. I intended this to be a negative example–a letter that students would not want sent on their behalf. But they liked it!  When I pushed them on why, one student said “it’s positive. It doesn’t say anything bad.” Then the lightbulb went on in my head: they don’t know that nobody will write a negative letter of recommendation.

Here are some excerpts from my generic letter and an explanation of why they are less than optimal:

“I am writing on behalf of  STUDENT NAME.  NAME was my student in a fifth-semester Spanish course at the University of X in the fall of 2009. Spanish classes are small in size and meet three days a week so there is a greater opportunity for students and faculty to get to know each other than in typical university courses. There is an emphasis on active participation in Spanish courses, which can intimidate students not only because of the requirement to constantly interact, but because all exchanges are conducted in Spanish.”  

The above is a description of the course! It takes up a lot of real estate on a one page letter that should be about you.

Her motivation is illustrated in the personal reading and journal projects that students presented to each other during class.  For her own presentations, NAME chose medical topics in order to advance her understanding of her future professional field.  When her classmates presented on topics related to business, law, or current events she always asked a lot of questions and contributed information to the discussions.”

That’s a little better because it mentions the student’s career path, but I can substitute “business” or “law” or “education” for “medical” and that paragraph applies to every student in the course, except the rare few for whom I would decline to write a letter at all.

Generic letter of recommendation content is like a ho-hum cover letter–it will cause your application to get passed over.

You can take control and help ensure that you are getting a highly personalized, positive letter of recommendation by following these steps:

1- “Refresh” the recommender’s memory. If it’s a professor, provide the course, the semester, and your grade.

2- Describe the specifics of the assignments & projects you did for the course. If you don’t remember, ask someone else to write the letter of recommendation. Because if you don’t remember the work you did in the course, chances are your work didn’t stand out to the professor either. And the professor had 20 other students in your section, probably taught a few more sections that semester and has taught 100+ students since you were in the class.

In other words, even if you are a standout student, you have to provide details of the exemplary work you did.

3- Provide explicit connections between the course you took with that professor and whatever it is you are applying for. If you can’t do this, ask someone else to recommend you. To be a strong candidate, you need recommendations that can provide specific examples of your suitability for the position. And you can only ask a recommender to speak about experiences they had with you. If they taught you Spanish 101, don’t ask them to say you are fluent even if you’ve had four years since then, including a year abroad. If that’s the case, you should be asking someone else to attest to your fluency.

2009 Head ShotDarcy Lear is a career coach specializing in job search documents, professional school applications, and interview preparation. For one-on-one support in preparing for your job search or to set up a campus workshop, contact Darcy:
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One Response to Professors’ Best Kept Secrets: They Won’t Write a Bad Letter of Recommendation

  1. I would add that if the professor politely suggests that you could find someone else who knows you better to write the letter, that’s a red flag that you’re going to get a generic letter if you press them on it.

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