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Adam Chapnick is the deputy
director of education at the
Canadian Forces College and
an associate professor of
defence studies at the Royal
Military College of Canada.
How to properly
turn down a
reference letter request
by Adam Chapnick
“If you are going to say
no, do it as quickly and
clearly as you can.”
or some university professors, drafting letters of reference that help aspiring students
reach higher in their professional careers
is a privilege, as is sharing the outcome of
a successful application with them. For
others, however, letter writing is a painful and
time-consuming activity that forces them to ask
themselves an uncomfortable question: is it permissible to turn down a student’s request for a
recommendation? And if you are going to say no,
are there best practices to follow?
Although there is nothing in a professor’s contract that prohibits saying no to a reference
request, there certainly is a stigma attached to
doing so. Professors are looked upon as mentors,
and most feel a duty to contribute to the ongoing
development and evolution of the academic community.
Nevertheless, there are often compelling rea-
sons to say no. Two are consistent with the idea
of the academy as a professional society. The third
is a question of effective time management:
1. The student is not strong enough to deserve a
good letter (and/or other candidates for the
same position are stronger).
2. A letter from a particular instructor might not
be taken seriously by the adjudication com-
3. A professor has been overwhelmed with
requests for recommendations and will not
be able to do justice to them all.
In the first instance, if a student asks for a letter in support of an application to a master’s or
PhD program and his grades are simply ordinary,
don’t hesitate. Write the student immediately
(thereby providing as much time as possible for
an alternative referee). Advise that you will have
to rank academic performance explicitly in the letter and that – even though you know the student
to be dedicated and enthusiastic – based on his
results in your course, you believe that the ranking
will hurt any chances of getting into the program.
The problem, though, may be quite different:
the student received an impressive grade but you
do not know her at all. Let her know. Explain that
you will be able to provide an impressive academic ranking, but that you will not be able to
rank her on a number of the other criteria.
Case two is similar. Again, write back immediately and advise the student that, based on your
experience with the committee in question, a letter from you, no matter how strong, will not be
nearly as helpful as one from a more established
individual, be it a senior professor or someone
with practical experience outside the academy. If
he still wants a letter after either of these replies,
don’t overdo it: you won’t be writing a strong letter, so it’s not worth putting in excessive effort.
In cases one and two, the key is to be prompt,
direct and honest. The purpose is to make it clear
to the student that the request should be retracted.
Case three is more challenging. If you’re the type
to regularly receive an overwhelming number of
requests, you should have a clear, well-publicized
policy about reference letters. Include the amount
of lead time you require to complete requests and
stick to it. (For guidelines on what you might
include in that policy, read my article “How to
ask for a reference letter” at www.universityaf-
fairs.ca). You might indicate that typically you
respond positively to approximately X percent of
requests, based on your sense of whether you can
write a letter that will be helpful.
1. Restricting your willingness to only write for
students who have received A-level grades in
2. Hesitating or responding vaguely to student
In the first instance, not every student is seeking admission to graduate or professional school.
A student might be applying to serve as a resident
don, or to go on an academic exchange. Good, but
not exceptional, academic standing might be sufficient.
In the second instance, well-prepared students
will have back-up plans, but they won’t be able
to implement them until they hear definitively
from you. So if you’re going to say no, do it as
quickly and clearly as you can.