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"Thus far, I have just written the best letter I could with what I knew about the student, but in my estimation, that has not produced the best results." - I'm not sure what else you can do. If you feel compelled to write the letter, and also compelled to be honest, that leaves little wiggle room. You should just say what is, in fact, positive about this particular student. All students have some positive aspects. I'm not sure what you mean by "best results", but if you mean the letter didn't help the student get into the program they wanted...well that might not be bad if they were not qualified. Also remember letters are only one part of the application, and students have a lot of other evidence to put forth in respect to their qualifications.

I have to say I am a bit surprised you seemed to have wrote letters of recommendation for philosophy grad school when you were still a grad student? I would refuse to write those, as I know my letter would carry almost no weight. Instead I would try to convince a faculty member to do it, and if they all refused, well...maybe.

Trevor Hedberg

Hi Amanda,

So first, the letters that I wrote as a grad student were not for philosophy graduate school. In fact, I have never been asked to write a letter for a graduate philosophy program. Letters I wrote as an ABD grad student were for (1) jobs the students were applying for, (2) applications for scholarships or other academic awards, and (3) law school. Some of these job and scholarship apps were successful. The law school letter was written for the best student I ever had: he had taken multiple courses from me, and I wrote a very detailed account of our interactions and the skills he had that would not show up merely in his transcripts, LSAT scores, etc. Anyway, that student got into a bunch of excellent law programs and later listed me as a character reference for the Bar Exam. Maybe my letter made no difference to the outcome, but the evidence would suggest my letter didn't hurt his chances either -- it's not clear to me he would have been better off with a far less detailed letter from a faculty member that barely knew him, and he told me as much in person when we discussed the matter.

By "best results," I just mean that the letters do not read like great endorsements. If I were reading them, I would think that they sent the subtle message that the student wasn't a great pick -- since letters of rec are often embellished, "decent" letters come across as being weak.

Michael Cholbi

A few thoughts here:
- Many students don't appreciate that how well the letter writer knows them matters as much as what the letter writer says. A gushing letter from someone with only a passing familiarity with the applicant is probably no better for the applicant than a positive but nuanced letter from someone with very extensive knowledge of the candidate. So if (for instance) the student who requests the letter only took a single lecture course with you, you might say, "I'm open to writing a letter for you, but keep in mind that I have only very limited knowledge of your abilities. Is there someone else who could write for you who knows you in greater depth?" I also thinks it's OK to be candid with a student: "I could probably write you a letter that would help you at Less Prestigious Program, but I'd have trouble making a case for you being admitted to Highly Prestigious Program" This could be an entry point into a discussion about whether the student's ambitions are realistic.
- Don't hesitate to write a positive letter qualified with the caveat that you have little information to go on. Those reading your letter will be able to surmise that your letter is positive but shallow and should thereby be accorded comparatively less weight.
- If the letter is accompanied by one of those rubrics, mark 'NA' 'No basis for judgment', or whatever -- those looking at the application materials will get the hint that you're working from rather limited evidence

Trevor Hedberg

Thanks, Michael. That's very helpful.


Hi Trevor,

Okay that makes sense, I wrote those letters as a grad student too. For some reason I thought you meant philosophy grad school. Law school I would be more hesitation about, but it seemed to work in your case. I also think law school is a lot different than philosophy grad school, and an ABD letter in general would be much more worrisome for philosophy grad school.

As for your letter coming across as weak - it is supposed to, isn't it? If you are going to be honest, anyway. Depending on what the student is applying to, even a weak letter can be helpful. Sometimes the competition isn't stiff, or sometimes they just really need "a" letter for all their other application materials will do the job.

Mike Titelbaum

I always require a student who wants a letter from me to schedule a meeting with me first. I tell them to send me all their application materials, and then we discuss what they’re applying for and what that kind of position wants in a recommendation letter. Finally, I tell them what kind of letter I think I can write for them given what I know of them. If I don’t know the student at all, I tell them that my letter will basically describe the course and then report what scores they got. And sometimes I say something to the student like “I am going to report that you got a B, and were at the fiftieth percentile in the class.” Then I let them decide whether they still want a letter from me, being clear that I’m happy with either decision and won’t hold anything against them either way.


First, my general rule of thumb is that you have to have taken two courses from me and received at least a B+ in each of those courses. (Caveat - I teach in an honors program and the courses are rigorous so a B+ is a good grade.) So, I also focus a lot on the program that I teach, its rigor, and how this program prepares them for med school, law school, or whatever program they are applying to. Perhaps you could do the same with your philosophy courses. I sometimes make exceptions to the above stated rule, say, if a student took my upper division philosophy elective and did very well, wrote an excellent research paper etc. The main thing is that you need details to discuss. Before I implemented this rule I wrote a couple of very brief, lukewarm letters which we all know are not actually recommendations. Now I just have a conversation with that student explaining to them why I can't write them a strong letter.

The other side of the issue is that with most grad and professional schools, I don't think that letters count for nearly as much as data - GPA and test scores. Ask the student for that info, and if they don't meet the minimum requirements, your time is probably better spent having a conversation about vocation with them than writing a letter that probably won't matter. Just my two cents...


I do roughly the same thing as Mike Titelbaum above. All my letters include explicit quantitative comparisons, and I try to be clear with students about what I could say about them in that part of the letter.

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