This time of year I find myself writing a bunch of medical school recommendation letters for undergraduates. Although the applications aren't due for several months, I guess the pre-med office requests that people prepare early. Don't want to be late! In any case, I'm usually happy to write recommendations for students who have been working in my lab and doing well, or that have been teaching assistants in one of my courses. I typically have lots to say about these students since I've interacted with them often for several years and on a regular basis. I'm always happy to write these letters for medical school or graduate school. What I'm more conflicted about is when students who I know only through a course ask me to write letters. Typically these are students who have taken a small seminar course with me and have therefore interacted with me more than they would at a large lecture course. Yet beyond their coursework, I hardly know these students. Sure, I can say how much they participated in discussions or how well their final projects reflected their grasp of the primary literature. But this hardly seems to say anything about whether I think they would make good doctors or scientists. I could sort of rank them and figure out if they were the better or weaker students in the class. But usually most students who take these upper level courses are pretty good, so its hard to really rank them. Thus I often find myself basically saying the same thing in all the letters, since I really have nothing or very little unique things to add.
So why agree to write the letter in the first place? Maybe I'm just a wuss, and have trouble saying no because I feel an obligation to the student. Many of these students don't have many other people they could ask for a letter since they haven't worked in a lab or done independent projects, so by default they ask one of their professors. However, I think there is a bit of a difference in how students and professors perceive the in-class relationship. I remember as an undergrad having been inspired by several of my professors, and their courses having a big impact in my way of thinking or in my professional choices. So to me these professors loom large in my mind and I felt a certain affinity to their way of thinking, and I assumed that they felt this same affinity towards me since I participated so much in their classes an wrote interesting papers, etc. But in retrospect, they probably hardly even remembered me after the semester was over. And I see that now. I'll sometimes get an email from a student telling me how my class was so important to them and all that, but in many cases I'm like "who IS that student?" And maybe that makes me a horrible professor that I don't connect like that to my students; but it just doesn't happen. I enjoy teaching them and I enjoy learning from them, but once the semester is over, they rarely cross my mind unless they work in my lab or the lab next door or they become TA's. So when these students that I know only from class ask me to write a letter, to be honest, I don't have much to say.
Is agreeing to write the letter doing a disservice to the student? I think to some degree it does, since it readily becomes clear that these kinds of letters are stock letters with no real information, even if they sound good on the surface. So I usually tell the students that I really can't comment beyond what I know from class. But they usually still want me to write the letter — maybe they have no one else to ask. That's why I think it's important for undergrads, and for those who advise them, to make sure that they really develop a working relationship with a faculty member. Get involved in independent research, work in a lab, get your name on a publication. That will earn you a good recommendation.
How would you deal with this situation? If you've taught a course, do you connect with your students? For any students out there, who have you asked or plan to ask for letters of recommendation?
While you ponder these questions, I'll leave you with this: