Reference Letters for Students in Classes

I will not provide reference letters for students that I know only through a class (as a student).

I get many requests from students from my classes to provide reference (recommendation) letters for graduate school applications. I will not provide these letters.

I will provide letters for students that I get to know outside of regular classes. For example, if you are involved in a directed study project or work with me as a peer mentor for a class (that’s why it says “as a student”).

In the past I offered to provide a generic “Did well in class letter”. I will not do this anymore (for reasons described below). I will not provide reference letters for students that I know only through a class (as a student). It is unfair for me to write letters for just some of the students in class (see below), so I need to have this as a blanket policy.

Included in this: I will not provide reference letters for admissions into the CS 2nd Masters program for students who only know me through a class. The reasons are slightly different, although the fairness arguments below do apply. With this, since I know the committee, I know that they are looking for evidence beyond just “student can get a decent grade in the class.”

Yes, I know this is a problem for many of our students: you only meet professors in large classes, and you want a professor to write a letter for you. See Undergrad Research, Projects and Directed Studies for some thoughts on this.

Granting exceptions to this rule would be unfair to all those people who read and follow the rules. Giving one person an exception would be rewarding them (for breaking rules), while penalizing the people who do the right things.

Rationale - Why I stopped providing DWIC letters

With our large classes, I do not have the opportunity to get to know students well enough to write letters. Yes, there are a few students that I get to know - but it is unfair to everyone else for me to provide letters only to those students. While sometimes I get to know a few students in a large class, this isn’t a good measure of which students are good. Usually, the few I get to know are either (1) end up working with me beyond class anyway, (2) lucky to have a situation where I got to know them, (3) problem cases (in which case I often don’t remember the good work - only the problems they had), (4) intentionally trying to be noticed to get a letter, or (5) I don’t actually remember them correctly and am relying on my own faulty memory.

A story … I got a request from a student in a mid-sized grad class (CS765 with about 60 people). All I could remember was that he came to class late which was disruptive. Of course, my memory is skewed (see the literature on cognitive biases) - it could be that it was just a few times that stuck in my head. I certainly didn’t remember his projects (there were lots of people who got As - I cannot remember all of them). And even when he clogged my mailbox with a copy of his project he was so proud of, I didn’t have the context of other projects to remember why it was so great, and I really couldn’t re-grade it.

The generic did well in class letter probably doesn’t help your application. How would you, as an admissions person feel if you read something like:

(Student) was a student in my CS559 Computer Graphics class in Spring of 2020. According to my unofficial records they received an A, however, you should check their official transcript for their actual grade. CS559 is a challenging class, so earning an A probably means they learned something about the topic and are able to demonstrate some level of programming and mathematical skill. This may be a predictor of their ability to perform well in similar classes. However, I have no direct memory of the student’s work or specific knowledge of their abilities.

Even if all I do is provide this generic letter, it is still a lot of work for me. I need to:

  1. Keep track of all the requests.
  2. Deal with students asking about the requests.
  3. Deal with issues where things are not handled correctly (lost emails, broken web links, etc.)
  4. Remember which ones have been done or not (since requests get sent multiple times)

And then, even the act of sending a reference letter is not a simple act of just sending a letter. Each reference requires dealing with some web service, each one with different requirements.

Increasingly, the burden of simply uploading a letter is becoming prohibitive. Even though a DWIC letter won’t help your application, providing it requires:

  1. Dealing with an uploading website that inevitably asks me to fill out lots of forms.
  2. Having to answer questions that I cannot answer (about how good a student you are).
  3. Managing passwords and other account information.
  4. Keeping track of which requests I’ve already done (since inevitably, they ask multiple times).
  5. Entering the same information multiple times (for each different program)
  6. Dealing with “verification procedures” - where they have to verify that it is really me sending the reference. (not many places do this - but the fact that some are starting leads me to believe it will be a trend)

Back in the old days, I could ask for help: the burden could be shifted to the students (I used to ask for you to stamp and address the envelopes), and I could get administrative help. But now, I have to do all the online work myself.