Who should you write letters of recommendation to?

So it seems like that time of the year where everyone is beginning to look towards the future and apply to graduate school, medical school, internships, etc.  Recently I have had a couple of students who were in my recitation last semester ask if I would write a letter of recommendation for them.

While I’m flattered that they asked me, my first thought is that they should consider asking a lead instructor of faculty member instead.  I am  just a lowly TA at the bottom of the academic totem pole.  When the both of them contacted me, they said that they asked me over the faculty for the course because I interacted with them more.

The first student, who needs this letter for medical school applications, earned a low B in the class.  Looking at her exam grades, she struggled with the material, but overall did well.  She was a pleasure to have in class, in fact she was a model student.  She arrived on time to recitation, she was prepared for class, and she participated in class and group discussions so I agreed to write her a letter.

The second student, who needs this letter for an internship application, began the semester with a very low grade and by the end of the semester earned a C.  She struggled greatly with the material for the course, but worked very hard.  She frequently came to office hours, would use the textbook (a rarity for undergrads here), and always ask questions in recitation.  Like the first student, she was also a model student who worked hard in class and participated.  I also agreed to write her a letter.

But I can’t help but think: should I have agreed to write those letters?  Am I the right person to write this LoR for their application? Would their applications be more competitive if they had asked their professors for this course instead of me?  Also, these students were not my top grades in my classes, but they were great to have in recitation.  So what’s more important when I am deciding whether or not to write these letters: academic performance or work ethic/personality? In this case, I agreed to write both because of how they behaved in my class.

So if I am asked to write letters what should I do?*  Should I encourage them to ask faculty?  If I think I should write their letter, should I look more seriously into their academic performance (grades)? Or is it ok to write letters for students who aren’t the best performers, but show good motivation and work ethic?

If you write LoR, what do you do?  How do you decide whether or not to write a student a LoR?

*Assuming I have time to write one

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About myscientificlife

Welcome to myscientificlife! I recently completed my undergrad at State University. I am currently taking a year off of school and applying to graduate schools. This lovely blog is mostly about my journey towards grad school and other things I find interesting, such as food, podcasts, and books. Probably mostly food. You can reach me at myscientificlife@gmail.com.
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3 Responses to Who should you write letters of recommendation to?

  1. Oh and for ppl in the US: Happy Independence Day!

  2. Alyssa says:

    Trying to answer all your questions, so this might be long:

    I often get asked to write reference letters for people that I have worked with in an outreach-capacity (either they were volunteers or were TAs I supervised). So, I focus on their skill set that I witnessed – which I think is all you can really do in a LoR. I don’t know how necessary it is to make note of their grades because, presumably, they’ll be supplying their transcripts with their applications. If you’re not sure what you should write about, you can always ask them what they’d like you to focus on.

    It was their decision to ask you to write a letter for them, so I won’t worry too much about whether you are the best person for it. You could suggest they ask a faculty member if you’re not comfortable in writing the letter…but I’m kind of guessing they may have already done that and the faculty member told them to get a letter from someone who worked with them more closely (classic deflection technique! LOL!).

    I think it’s MORE important to write letters for students who might have lower grades but are hard workers and model students (because we all know grades basically mean squat in most situations).

    There have only been two people who have requested letters that I had to say no too, because I would not have been able to write a positive letter for them. There are ways to get around it, like focusing on things like “they were always on time”, so the reviewer can read between the lines and see it’s not a great reference, but I prefer to let them know I can’t write a strong letter for them and they’re better off getting someone else to write it.

    • Thanks for commenting! Good point about transcripts; I didn’t think of that. I guess the purpose of LoR is to see what the person is like outside of their grades.

      I agree, I think it is more important to write LoR for the hard workers who may not be straight A students. I was definitely one of them.

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