Sunday, April 17, 2016

How wisely should I choose my recommenders?

As high school students continue to receive letters from college admissions offices, I continue to receive questions from readers about recommendation letters. The latest is from a college student who is applying to graduate schools. Let's call him, Francis.

Francis is in his final year of college. He decided last fall to apply to graduate schools. He put together his list of professors he wanted to ask for recommendations. Among those was a professor, let's call him Professor Wilson, with whom he says he learned quite a bit and had a good rapport.

While an undergraduate, Francis was committed to working hard, but also to taking advantage of all his college had to offer in the way of extracurricular activities. Professor Wilson was well-known for his strict attendance policy and insistence that assignment deadlines be met.

On at least two occasions, Francis missed class to attend a special lecture on campus that conflicted with class time and so he could go on an out-of-town field trip. Francis did solid work for Professor Wilson's class, but he was a week late submitting his final paper.

Francis ended up receiving a B for the class -- not a terrible grade, but not the grade he might have received if he hadn't been absent or late.

Still, he had a good relationship with Professor Wilson and believed he understood him and his work well. So last fall he asked Professor Wilson to write one of his letters of recommendation. Professor Wilson agreed to get the recommendation letters in on time.

Now, Francis is having second thoughts.

"Was it wrong for me to assume that my professor would focus on my strengths in the recommendation letter and leave out the incidents leading to my lower grade in his class? Was it wrong to ask him to write me a letter?"

It wasn't wrong for Francis to ask Professor Wilson to write him a recommendation letter. But Francis should not have assumed that his professor would gloss over any of his academic shortcomings in his assessment on his student. Once he agreed to write the letter, Professor Wilson is obligated to write an honest and thorough assessment and to answer any questions posed by the institutions to which Wilson is applying.

As someone who has sat on graduate admissions committees at more than one college, I can make the observation that it seems curious to receive recommendation letters with negative assessments in an otherwise glowing letter, given that the applicant could have chosen anyone he wanted to write the letter. His choice of Professor Wilson suggests curious judgment on his part.

When asked in the past to write recommendation letters, I occasionally have reminded students of their actions or work that might come up in the letter that might not shine as favorably on them if I am one of their recommenders. Professor Wilson could have done the same thing for Francis, but he had no obligation to do so.

The right thing is for Francis to choose those recommenders he believes might write the strongest letters on his behalf, and to expect that they will be honest and forthcoming in those letters. 

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of, a blog focused on ethical issues. 

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I would suggest that the same concerns hold for recommendation letters requested for job applications. Unless those are the only options, don't choose the ones who will damn with faint praise.