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Daniel Weltman

I think the two acceptable positions are 1) only write a letter if you can write a good one, or 2) tell the student if you can't write a good letter and let them decide. I don't think it's unethical to write a bad letter if the student knows the letter is going to be bad.

I think some people might not like 2) because they don't want professors to let students send in weak applications. If someone is not going to succeed because they will have at least one bad letter, the thought is that they shouldn't even be allowed to submit an application (perhaps because one ought not to let them get their hopes up). I can see the sense in this but I disagree - I think it's the student's choice to submit. I've never had a student ask me for a bad letter, but if they did, and they were insistent on it, I would write one for them (again, after informing them it won't be a good letter). If a student wants to send in a bad application that is likely to fail, I do not think it is my job to stop them. I can urge them to reconsider, but I don't think it's my role to decide if they can apply at all. And that's effectively what I do if I don't write a letter, because applications require letters.

Grad Student

From what I've heard/experienced, there's a mix.

Almost no one will write a letter if the letter is going to be negative. Some will write a letter, without warning the student, even if they know that the letter will be pretty tepid and weak (but positive). Others will warn the student if they think that their letter will be weak or if the student should consider other letter writers over them.

I think prospective letter writers should warn students if they think that they aren't going to be able to provide a strong letter, but it's okay to write a weak letter if the student insists on it.


My policy is I will only write a letter if the student has taken 2 courses from me and received a B+ or greater in those courses, otherwise I just don't have enough to go on to write a really strong letter. I will make exceptions if the student has completed an upper division course with me which means that I got to know them better and the work was much more demanding. I have written one very weak letter for a student who had received B-/C in both courses, thus I adopted the current policy.

I do wonder, however, why we shouldn't allow or even expect some letters to be negative? I mean, isn't one of the criticisms of LOR that they are all gushing and exaggerated? If some are lukewarm or outright negative, that is very useful information to have...


I agree with Paul. It is not bad that some letters are weak or negative. It is bad that a weak students ask for a letter.
I do not have hard and fact rules for who I write for, because sometimes I am supporting a student studying overseas for a semester, and sometimes for a graduate program. These are different situations.


How is it bad that a weak student asks for a letter? They might not know they are weak. Someone in my position knows that getting a "B" in a core major philosophy course is a sign that they are not ready for grad school, but students are often very navive. They think a B is good, and hence that they are good. I think many of these requests are just from a young person without life expreience who doens't know what they are doing. We are the people who should know better.

I get the "what's the point of letters if some aren't bad?" However, they are called "reccomendation" letters, right? So it seems if less people agreed to write them, then less students would apply. That seems a better result, to me, then having students apply with weak letters and get rejected. Although I agree with Daniel that if a student insists even when told it will be weak, then it is okay to write it. I think the ethical problem arises in giving the impression a letter will be decent and then writing one that just isn't.

Grad student: I guess it depends on what you mean by "negative." No letter I have seen has said something like, "This student is horrible do not admit them."However, many letters I cannot interpret as anything but negative. For example, letters that say nothing about recommending the student, and only comment on the content of a paper. Or letters where the most positive thing someone says is, "X is passionate about philosophy." Some say, "Out of all my students in this class, X was in the middle range of talent." Lastly, I've had letters that say, "So and so is hard to work with and lacks ambition, but they have strong analytical skills." With job letters I have heard professors talk about only their own work almost the entire letter, and then at the end say their student did some variation of their work. I've also seen job letters that say things like, "I have not meet so and so in person but we have exchanged emails and he seems like an intelligent person."

I will have to say, I'm surprised after serving on a search committee, all the comments about how letters are useless and all are about the same and positive. That just wasn't my experience. It was pretty easy to tell great letters apart from so-so letters.


To be clear, Amanda, I will tell that student that the letter will not be strong. I will recommend that they look for someone else that can write a stronger, but *might* write it anyway if they insist.

My 2 course B+ rule is for grad school, not for smaller things fwiw...so that pretty much eliminates having to write bad LOR for grad school...


That makes sense, Paul.

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