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How to properly turn down a reference letter request

Saying no doesn't have to be a painful task.

par Adam Chapnick

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For some university professors, drafting letters of reference that help aspiring students reach higher in their professional careers is a privilege, as is sharing the outcome of a successful application with them. For others, however, letter writing is a painful and time-consuming activity that forces them to ask themselves an uncomfortable question: is it permissible to turn down a student’s request for a recommendation? And if you are going to say no, are there best practices to follow?

Although there is nothing in a professor’s contract that prohibits saying no to a reference request, there certainly is a stigma attached to doing so. Professors are looked upon as mentors, and most feel a duty to contribute to the ongoing development and evolution of the academic community.

Nevertheless, there are often compelling reasons to say no. Two are consistent with the idea of the academy as a professional society. The third is a question of effective time management:

  1. The student is not strong enough to deserve a good letter (and/or other candidates for the same position are stronger).
  2. A letter from a particular instructor might not be taken seriously by the adjudication committee.
  3. A professor has been overwhelmed with requests for recommendations and will not be able to do justice to them all.

In the first instance, if a student asks for a letter in support of an application to a master’s or PhD program and his grades are simply ordinary, don’t hesitate. Write the student immediately (thereby providing as much time as possible for an alternative referee). Advise that you will have to rank academic performance explicitly in the letter and that – even though you know the student to be dedicated and enthusiastic – based on his results in your course, you believe that the ranking will hurt any chances of getting into the program.

Another problem could also arise: the student received an impressive grade but you do not know her at all. Let her know. Explain that you will be able to provide an impressive academic ranking, but that you will not be able to rank her on a number of the other criteria.

Case two is similar. Again, write back immediately and advise the student that, based on your experience with the committee in question, a letter from you, no matter how strong, will not be nearly as helpful as one from a more established individual, be it a senior professor or someone with practical experience outside the academy. If he still wants a letter after either of these replies, don’t overdo it: you won’t be writing a strong letter, so it’s not worth putting in excessive effort.

In cases one and two, the key is to be prompt, direct and honest. The purpose is to make it clear to the student that the request should be retracted. Case three is more challenging. If you’re the type to regularly receive an overwhelming number of requests, you should have a clear, well-publicized policy about reference letters. Include the amount of lead time you require to complete requests and stick to it. (For guidelines on what you might include in that policy, read my article How to ask for a reference letter). You might indicate that typically you respond positively to approximately X percent of requests, based on your sense of whether you can write a letter that will be helpful.

If this process doesn’t reduce demand sufficiently, you are likely taking too much time constructing each letter. Follow the guidance in my article Reference letters revisited and aim for no more than two drafts.

Finally, stay away from two common errors:

  1. Restricting your willingness to only write for students who have received A-level grades in your courses.
  2. Hesitating or responding vaguely to student requests.

In the first instance, not every student is seeking admission to graduate or professional school. A student might be applying to serve as a resident don, or to go on an academic exchange. Good, but not exceptional, academic standing might be sufficient.

In the second instance, well-prepared students will have back-up plans, but they won’t be able to implement them until they hear definitively from you. So if you’re going to say no, do it as quickly and clearly as you can.

Adam Chapnick is the deputy director of education at the Canadian Forces College and an associate professor of defence studies at the Royal Military College of Canada.

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