why I will (probably?) always agree to write a letter of recommendation for a student
Today, I heard from a student that I had a couple of semesters ago asking for a letter of recommendation for a master’s program. I only had the student in one class, his attendance was spotty, and I didn’t have a lot of sustained interactions with him, so I am questioning whether I would be the best letter writer for him. However, while I said as much to the student in my reply, I also told him that despite all of that, I would still be willing to write him a letter. It looks like he’s taking me up on this.
So far in my career, I’ve written a letter of recommendation for every student who’s asked me. In some cases, that has been really easy—in other cases, it’s felt like this one, where I wasn’t confident that I could give the strongest recommendation. However, it’s been a very deliberate choice to say yes to everyone. In fact, I was thinking about writing something up about this just a few days ago, so this email got me to actually sit down and do it.
A few weeks into the Winter 2010 semester at BYU (what most universities call the spring semester—it took me a year or two in grad school to stop calling it “winter”), I went into Dr. Ray Christensen’s office to ask him for a letter of recommendation. I was taking Dr. Christensen’s PL SC 200, the first research class—and one of the first writing classes—that I ever took. Dr. Christensen was an amazing professor—he worked hard before every semester to learn his students’ names and faces before the first day of class and recognized some of us on the very first day of class. This was all the more impressive for the fact that this was a large lecture class. I can’t remember how many students there were, but there were certainly enough that I wouldn’t bother learning names if I were the professor.
However, the size of the class was also a major sign that I shouldn’t have been asking for a letter of recommendation. It was too early in the semester for him to get to know me, there were too many students for him to get to really know any of us, TAs did all the grading, and it just did not make any sense to ask him for a letter of recommendation. I really wanted one, though—I had only recently come back from two years as a Latter-day Saint missionary in Europe, and while I now feel a bit conflicted about those two years, I knew then just as well as I do know that I had fallen in love with France and Switzerland. I was eager to go back for a summer, I was unsure about how much it would cost, and I was trying my best to apply for as many scholarships as I could. I needed a letter of recommendation for one scholarship, and even though Dr. Christensen wasn’t a great choice, I wasn’t sure that I had any better ones.
So I asked him, even though I had no business doing so. And he wrote one, even though it was probably a waste of his time. I didn’t get the scholarship, but I will always remember his generosity in writting the letter for me. I can’t promise that I will always agree to pay this act of generosity forward, but I know that I’m going to try to. I’ve been helped so much by generous teachers throughout my life, and now that this is the career that I’m in, I try to live up to the standard they set and do the same for my students.
You can use click on the
< button in the top-right of your browser window to read and write comments on this post with Hypothesis. You can read more about how I use this software here.