Friday, December 31, 2010

Recommendation for a snowflake

Ah, winter break! 'Tis the season for requests for letters of recommendation, as all the little snowflakes dreading the economy devise ill-formed plans to attend graduate school. I dread the way those requests pile up; see illustration, right. It seems like there are more every year.

My latest request came from an undergrad I like well enough to recommend, though not with an overabundance of enthusiasm. I let her know that I'd need her c.v., a copy of her personal statement, and the form(s) from whichever graduate program(s) she's applying to.

I don't think you need to fill out a form, she says. You can just write a letter and send it to me.

Um, no. That's not how it usually works, I reply. Which graduate program(s) are you applying to?

She responds by sending me a link from a university web site. "Here," she says, "these are the guidelines for writing a letter of recommendation."



No way, McFlakey--that is a list of general instructions from a career development office, advising undergraduates how to approach professors for letters of recommendation. That's for YOU to read, not me--and you really should read it, actually. Now, you still haven't told me: Which graduate program are you applying to?

"The one at the University of Foobar. I know it's busy with the holidays and all, but if you can write something this week that would be great."

Oh, for chrissake. "The one"? WHICH one? And where's your resume and personal statement, missy? Am I supposed to imagine things to praise about you? "Student McFlaky is noteworthy for the way she rolls her eyes when thick-as-brick students dominate the class discussions. I always appreciated her well-timed eye rolls in class. I also like her ability to levitate."


I know a lot of undergrads lack the cultural capital to understand how the graduate admissions process works, and I was willing to help her sort out the process. But based on her inability to answer simple questions or even read web content correctly before forwarding it on to me in an email, I doubt her application will be very successful. So maybe I'll send this letter of recommendation along and be done with it:
To the University of Foobar:

With this letter, I am recommending Student McFlakey's graduate admission application as bedtime reading for members of the appropriate graduate committee. She is applying to a graduate program she calls "the one." Do you know which one she means? I don't.

I am relieved that you are not MIT, because Ms. McFlakey would likely be a menace to society if she ever found herself enrolled in civil engineering. I would prefer not to drive over a bridge or through a tunnel she had designed, that's for sure!

If she is referring to graduate basketweaving or perhaps even graduate play-doh design, I brim with confidence that she would be the most mediocre student in her cohort. She has potential, but not much.

In fact, Ms. McFlakey is a highly deserving applicant for a scholarship. I hear your funding has been cut so much that the average graduate student receives a scholarship consisting in its entirety of a swift kick in the rear. I like that idea a lot.

Thank you for reading Ms. McFlakey's application for graduate admission to your math / religion / arts and crafts / clown school program for me. I would have read it for her, but she ignored my request to send it my way. I hope her personal statement was informative and attention-grabbing and didn't call me any bad names.

Dr. Snarky
Snarklepuss University


  1. Ha. More than half the students that ask me for recommendations never get them, because they never give me the materials I request that make it possible for me to write one. As in: Copy of paper you wrote for my class, and copy of personal statement (the transcript I can look up myself). "I need these two weeks before you need the recommendation," I tell them.

    Idiots. Writing a recommendation takes an enormous amount of work, and I write very good ones. Taking the extra effort to give me what I ask for may get you into that graduate school. Believe me when I tell you I've seen lackluster, two-sentence recs from professors that couldn't be bothered. They're the ones that will say "Sure! Come back tomorrow!" And then you'll get a rec that basically states "Student X was in my Contemporary Novel course and received a B+. She did well."

    If you don't care enough to give me your shit, Student X, I don't care enough to write your rec.

  2. What Stella said. If it were me, McFlakey would not be getting a letter of any kind--poison pill or otherwise.

  3. Oh my god, yes, please send this honest and snarky recommendation!! It would make my job so much easier combing through these nutjobs' applications.

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  5. Dudes, chillax! Ms Flake lost all hope of a letter when she emailed me instructions on requesting a recommendation.

    I'm was raised to be snarky, not sincere.

  6. Am I the only one who simply refuses to do work for students over *my* break? Yes, selfish of me - I know. I adopt Stella's approach, but I also tell them that my "break" starts the day after final grades are submitted. They need to get stuff to me two weeks before that if they hope to see a letter.

    And yes, even my best students screw this up. My favorite glittering star student (non-flake) wanted a letter for an internship at an amazingly cool, interesting non-profit - I happily agreed (and I would have happily whipped the thing out as soon as she sent me her cover letter, cv, etc.). Seriously, she's that good. But. . . she never sent me anything. I even sent her a REMINDER that I was about to finish for the term and if she just sent me material right away, I'd write the letter. Nothing. Oh why, oh why???

  7. I don't write mean or dishonest letters. Only good letters.

    Also, I tell my students that I need all the information six weeks before the deadline. Yes, six weeks. That's my policy, because I have a life and I don't want to hastily write a crappy letter for anybody.

    Oh, and I have each student proofread his/her letter in my presence after I write it and before I send it.

  8. Don't write a letter unless you can do a good one. Any other machinations are inappropriate. There's nothing wrong with turning down requests.

  9. @ELS

    While I totally concur that there is nothing wrong in turning down requests, I am curious how you do so.

    Do you (within the limits of totally snarking out) tell the student s/he doesn't merit the rec or do you craft some basketweavy neutral excuse about your workload being oh, so overwhelming, etc.?

  10. @Aware

    I say something like, "I'm sorry, I don't think I could write you a letter that would be helpful enough. I'd urge you to try to find someone else."

    I have at times been as forthcoming as saying, "Your work in my class just hasn't convinced me that you're ready for grad school (worthy of a fellowship, whatever.). But I save that for students whose work I do know pretty well.

    More often than not I turn down requests for students I barely know. Then it's easy to say, "I don't have enough experience with you and your studies to be able to help you."


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