This week I wrote graduate school recommendation letters for two students whom I don’t know very well at all. One received an AB and another a B in the classes they took with me.
When they asked me for letters (they did so separately and are in no way connected), I explained to each that I didn’t know them very well and that I usually didn’t write for students who hadn’t gotten an A in my class. The thing is, they each have one professor who knows them well, but need at least 3 letters for their applications. I make a point of remembering everyone’s’s face and learning their names (it’s doable even with a 100+ people in the class, but requires some work), so I guess they came to me because they were at least sure that I knew who they were.
How many undergraduates really have 3+ professors who know them well? A couple of my former graduate researchers come to mind, but they were stellar (it helps with getting remembered if you do great in someone’s class), engaged with a research group for over a year, and having college-level extracurriculars. But most students aren’t superstars; even if they do research, that advisor is likely the only professor who knows them well enough to write something specific.
Why do undergraduates need 3+ letters to get into graduate school? Couldn’t we say, “At least 1, and make it substantive?” When I look at applicant’s letters, there are always lukewarm ones from the people who clearly don’t know the student. At best, these letters add nothing of substance to the case. At worst, they make the applicant seem weaker through the well-known “damning by faint praise” effect. Students from large universities cannot be expected to be well connected with multiple professors the way they are at some smaller schools.
I wrote the letters that are as specific and as positive as I could. The B student is switching majors, and is passionate about the topic he is about to pursue for his Master’s more than the one he’s received a Bachelor’s degree in; I knew as much and focused on his motivation and ambition for the new field. The AB student is actually very bright but I would say somewhat lethargic; I focused on his capability and how it manifested itself in my class.
I told both students that I would write the letters, but that they would be fairly generic. I said I would try to make the letters as positive as I could to the extent to which I knew the students, which isn’t much. They were fine with it.
I did what I promised and I wish them success with their applications.