School counselors and teachers tasked with writing letters of recommendation for eager college-bound seniors would likely agree that the job, although a welcomed honor, is a labor of love. Educators spend countless hours drafting detailed and personalized letters on behalf of students in order to support their achievements. Often, letters are crafted with ease, knowing that the student’s countless achievements, accolades, and leadership skills speak for themselves. In other situations, recommenders must dig a bit deeper to write about a student as they were observed on their best day. This comes with knowing that a student is continuing to develop into a stronger version of themselves but maybe aren’t quite there just yet.
But what should a recommender do if they don’t feel they could draft even that type of letter? In this article we will outline the purpose behind a college letter of recommendation, situations in which an educator may decline to write on a student's behalf, and how to best handle this less-than-ideal situation if faced with it.
The purpose behind a college letter of recommendation:
The question often arises – “Do admission counselors really read these letters?” The answer is YES. As it relates to college applications, the purpose behind reading a letter of recommendation is to learn about the student through a holistic lens, outside of the concrete GPA and test scores. Admission officers are looking for character, leadership, intellectual curiosity, and more through shared anecdotes - essentially admission officers want to learn about who the student is within their current community and how they may contribute to their college community. It is within these letters and college essays that the student comes to life.
Why an educator may decline a request for a letter of recommendation:
Now, to be clear, having to decline a request for a letter or recommendation doesn’t happen often. Even in the most trying of student experiences, many educators can, once again, find a way to reflect on a student’s ability and potential. But, on the off chance that an educator is faced with having to decline a request, it’s most important that they do so in a way that allows all parties involved to still feel good about the situation. Here are just some reasons why a recommender may decline a request:
Lacking in the ‘Gold Star’ department: Many students have their strengths and areas in which they are working to improve. But, if a recommender has only observed a student in their weaker season with little evidence of concerted effort to progress, it is incredibly difficult to write an endorsement. For example, a student is perpetually tardy and/or unprepared for class, submits assignments late or not at all, is not engaged in classroom discussions, or is often disrespectful in other ways – these are all viable reasons as to why a recommendation request will not be accepted.
Late on a very important date: Deadlines exist for a reason – they allow for timely planning and execution. Recommenders may give students a deadline by which a request must be submitted. This allows the recommender to plan accordingly, granting them the time needed to produce strong letters of support. Once the deadline has passed, a student has drastically decreased their chances of obtaining that particular endorsement. Often, school recommenders have received 20, 30, or 40+ requests, and can and will refuse to oblige students who sought their support past the deadline.
Not enough information about the candidate: Generally, college admission officers are looking for recommendations written by junior year teachers – the most mature and full year of high school prior to submitting college applications. However, in some cases, a student may seek support from a senior year instructor. This is especially challenging for a teacher who has only known the candidate for a few short months prior to the BIG November 1st college application deadline. Not having had adequate time to obverse a student in their classroom makes it impossible for the educator to advocate on their behalf, especially in a 1- 2 page detailed letter. The teacher may welcome a Q&A session with the student in order to learn more about them, but nothing truly replaces the experience of having worked with a student for a full academic year.
How to best handle having to decline a request for a letter of recommendation:
There are lessons to be learned in every situation – for students, as well as everyone else. For educators, it’s important to remember their impressionable role in a student’s life. Even when faced with having to say no, a student can walk away feeling confident and better informed. They may never make the same mistake(s) again.
Rip the Band-Aid off quickly but gently – Recommenders should never prolong their decision, ultimately leaving the student hanging. Make the decision quickly and with confidence. If a recommender doesn’t feel they would be the best advocate for the student, they should clearly state their reasons as to why, again, creating a teachable moment for the student. This, hopefully, will allow the student to reflect, but also give them time to consider another recommender.
Follow-up in writing – It never hurts to send an email message to recap the initial conversation. This is an excellent opportunity to express your gratitude for their consideration, provide some positive and reassuring feedback, and also offer your (kindly worded) reasoning for declining the student’s request. Again, the goal is to teach while allowing the young person to grow from the experience. Let the student know that although you can’t support their college application in this way, you are cheering for their success. A little grace goes a long way and will be remembered.