I welcome the opportunity to provide recommendations for outstanding students. I believe it is part of our mission as faculty and as administrators to facilitate continued success for the top students. I always try hard to capture the essence of the student I’m recommending so that whoever reads the recommendation has both a better understanding of the student and of my motivation for providing the recommendation. Capturing the essence of the student isn’t easy but without that effort, all a recommendation comes down to is a collection of flattering words often without a context or a common thread. Isn’t almost everyone we provide a recommendation for, intelligent, hard working, and successful in their schoolwork? What makes the person you are writing about an excellent candidate for admission to a highly selective graduate or professional school? Why this person as opposed to another candidate who’s GPA and honors are equivalent.
To be in a position to write a recommendation for a student requires more than the act of writing itself. You should not only know the student (through class or through working in your office or through shared governance) but you should also ask for person’s transcript, their resume, and their personal essay. This should be followed shortly thereafter by a full conversation with the student asking what does the student have in mind and why. This actually provides a great opportunity to help the student reflect on exactly what he/she is thinking as a next step in his/her education/career. It was actually during such a conversation in my senior year in college that the faculty person I was talking to suggested a doctoral program in economics. Up to that time, I had actually focused almost exclusively on career opportunities and I have always been thankful for the conversation and the advice.
I have also learned over time to say no when asked by students I don’t really know or can’t recommend wholeheartedly to write recommendations on their behalf. I know that I could write the recommendation, not say anything negative, still tell the truth, and in that way avoid saying no to the student. But is it really helpful to say that student X has a nice personality, or came to class regularly, or handed in assignments on time? What does that really tell you? What value would be placed on such a recommendation? I think we all know the answers to these questions. Saying no can also at times open the door to a fruitful conversation that can lead to a much more positive outcome in the future.
I also read recommendations from applicants as well as recommendations for a union scholarship that I help to judge. My belief is that recommendations can be most helpful at the margin. When you are undecided as to whether a person should be accepted or rejected, or should or should not be awarded a certain scholarship, a good recommendation can be of enormous help. A mediocre or superficial recommendation, on the other hand, is of no value whatsoever. And too many of the recommendations I have read over many years fall into the superficial category.
If you believe a person should be highly recommended, go ahead and make the recommendation. Make it convincingly and passionately. It will matter. But if you don’t feel strongly about recommending the person, do yourself and the person a favor. Nicely suggest they look elsewhere.