Sure, I’ll Write You a Recommendation

Monsieur Stephenson, circa 1980s

In 11th grade, I needed three stellar recommendations that I could send off with my college applications. I felt confident that I would receive solid letters from two of my former English teachers, but then I was kinda stuck. There was no way I could ask any of my math teachers. I mean, I enjoyed Geometry, but I wasn’t necessarily good at it, and my Algebra teacher had retired.

Finally, I decided to ask my French teacher. I’d been in his class for two years. I was reasonably interested in the material (kinda); I liked him a lot (that should count for something, right?); I did my homework (sometimes); and I tried not to laugh too much. Yes, I decided, Monsieur Stephenson would be the perfect person to write me the outstanding recommendation that I was seeking.

You can imagine how shocked I was when he flat out said no.

“Think about your performance in my class,” he said. “Do you give 100% ? Do you take everything seriously? Do you show me that you want to be here? Do you do anything extra?” He pushed his hair back with the palm of his hand and sat up straight in his chair. “Think about the answers to those questions and then you’ll understand why I can’t write you a letter.”

He did not say he was sorry.

Fast forward 30 years.

Here it is, recommendation letter writing season, the time when former students return to me, sometimes many semesters after I’ve had them as students. Like frantic homing pigeons who have been lost for an awful long time, they ask me to write them all kinds of letters –  to get into four year colleges, to enter the military, to give to potential employers – so I find myself thinking of Monsieur Stephenson a lot.

Mr. Stephenson in the 1980s

When Monsieur refused me that day, he gave me a big dose of reality.

It is not enough to simply show up: A person must do more than make a good impression. Many of my former students think that because they liked me – that because I was kind to them and they passed my class – that they are entitled to strong letters of recommendation, but the best letters of recommendation are not just about “passing the course,” but about work ethic and character, growth and potential.

I am grateful to Monsieur for refusing me, as I see his wisdom in holding up the mirror before me and having me take a good hard look at myself and my choices. I understand that his mediocre letter could have prevented me from getting into the college of my choice.

Students need to think carefully and be direct in asking any potential letter writer if that person can produce a strong letter of recommendation on their behalf.

If a student can’t find a professor or teacher, they may have to get creative and look to coaches, neighbors, religious leaders, perhaps someone who has witnessed their involvement in community service.

I learned more than just French from Monsieur Stephenson: I learned to be selective about whom I agree to write letters of recommendation. They are time consuming endeavors; labors of love.

Having said that, I am happy to write one for you – if you deserve it.

Anybody refuse to write you a letter of recommendation? How’d you take it?

15 thoughts on “Sure, I’ll Write You a Recommendation

  1. That must have been hard to hear at the time, but he was absolutely right. I’ve never been turned down for a recommendation request – I was kind of a book nerd in my high school and college days and really got into my classes (okay, okay, I’m STILL a book nerd) – but I have had to turn down students for recommendations. They weren’t happy, but I was very clear as to why (I tried to be kind), so they knew it was pointless to argue. I hope it gave them a wakeup dose of reality, too.

    1. Kathy:

      I’m sure you were very kind about letting students know that you wouldn’t be able to write letters for them. It’s an important moment of realization – and it certainly helps if someone is trying to be kind. I’m not sure Monsieur was, but I learned my lesson just the same. And if I think about it now, he was being kind to himself. It isn’t easy to write a mediocre reference letter.

  2. Nobody turned me down for anything like that, but they all should have. I was one of those students (using the term lightly) who sorta slid by with as little effort as possible. Public school courses were easy enough that I got away with it all the way to graduation, but when I got to Duke, I got a rude shock. They actually expected me to study, and I didn’t know how. Besides, I’d developed habits during my public school career that didn’t include ever really working for anything. In retrospect, I wish someone had taken me by my shoulders early in my school years and shaken some sense into me. I might have graduated with better than a 2.0 average on a 4.0 system, and I might have been better prepared for life, as well.

    1. Isn’t it funny? The things we wish someone had taught us now that we are older and have a little more perspective. I have to say, since I’ve hit 50, I have not spent a single day not learning something new. I think I’ve had it easy most of the way, too… learning to start over again has been really difficult for me. I thought I could do anything, but this reboot has been tough.

  3. I was recently asked by a student who I SHOULDN’T have writtten a letter for. Period. Wish you had posted three weeks ago… but the young lady asked in front of the entire class and the class got quiet, incredibly quiet, and I should’ve asked, ‘can we speak after class?’ but I didn’t want to embarrass her in front of her peers so I responded, ‘yes, send me the information and I’ll write a letter for you. It was the most difficult letter of recommendation I’ve ever written. Thanks for your post, Mr. Stephenson taught you more than French with his refusal.

    1. For these I would say “I believe it is wise that _____________ should have the opportunity for higher education . This would help _________ reach her full potential to enter the work force . Higher education would enhance her chances for success in any endeavor she may choose to engage. ”

      To my pleasant surprise some would visit me at school years later and I would find that the former creepy pain in the ass had developed into a delightful and well educated refined young person. Truly astonishing. You never know. We don’t have to lie and praise that creepy kid but as educators we can use generic words to give a kid an opportunity. That is a teacher’s mission.

    2. Hi Clay! It’s hard enough to write a strong letter of reference, but writing a mediocre letter is exhausting. All these years later, I now realize that Monsieur was actually being kind to himself when he refused me. I’m guessing you learned the same lesson.

  4. Reading this I realize there have been times I should have refused rather that write a letter that sounds very “neutral.” It is difficult to say “no.” It’s very different to write a personal recommendation vs a professional one although I think in both you need to convey if that person shows up. Great food for thought. Thanks Renee!

    1. Thanks for the comment, Sara. It’s hard to say no, but it’s even harder to write a mediocre letter. All these years later, I now realize that Monsieur was actually being kind to himself when he refused me. I’m guessing you learned the same lesson.

  5. For most of my high school students I would include “I strongly believe that an investment in the education of ___________ is a wise investment for our community, our state and the nation.” They could use this on application recommendation and scholarship applications.

    Frequently I had interns for teaching in my classroom. I kept the recommendations for their employment brief and simple without all the platitudes and praise. I would feature this: “There are many characterizations that can be listed in evaluating an intern for employment in our school system. But I think the most qualified assessment of of an individual is to ask myself if I would be comfortable with having _____________________ as a teacher for my own children. For ____________ the answer is a resounding yes.”

    1. Hi Carl: These days schools want MUCH more when it comes to letters of recommendation. They want us to use examples and really expand on a students’ strengths. Generalities are no longer enough. The people who have STRONG letters of recommendation are the ones who rise to the top. If I wrote a letter like the one you are suggesting, that would be considered lukewarm – and I’d rather not waste my time doing them. After all, I’m not doing the student any favors.

  6. I had a teacher agree to write me a letter of recommendation, but it wasn’t exactly glowing!! Who does that? I learned to ask for a “favorable” letter of recommendation. In this scenario I wished she would have said no…

    1. My father taught me to ask if someone would be willing to write me a strong letter of recommendation. In this situation, the truth hurt – but I ended up in college and grad school, and I graduated Phi Beta Kappa, so all’s well that ends well, I guess. Thanks for your comment!

  7. I have not checked in here for a while since I thought it was getting boring, but the last few posts are good quality so I guess I’ll add you back to my daily bloglist. You deserve it my friend keddkadeckbd

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