Writing an academic recommendation for a terrible student!

(15 Posts)
WhataBoringNameChange Sun 06-Jan-13 19:42:01

DH teaches at a small university in mainland Europe. I'm keeping all the details deliberately vague to avoid the risk of any parties here being identified. One of the duties he has ended up taking on is writing academic recommendations for students who want to do a semester or year at another university in a different country, using the ERASMUS programme for example - this recommendation then becomes part of their application. If the student wants to go to a British university the recommendation would go via UCAS.

In most cases writing a recommendation that is both honest and positive is quite easy - generally it is only the more able and confident students who are interested in going abroad. However, now a student who has acquired a rather negative reputation has asked him to write a recommendation. This student is surly and uncooperative with staff AND fellow students, does not appear to like people at all, does the bare minimum of work, and once physically attacked a professor. Although the student took a class with DH he can't remember him/her that well personally because s/he attended so few sessions - but s/he was notably antisocial during those few lessons. S/he deals with his/her own culture badly enough - dealing with another culture would surely be disastrous.

So DH is wondering if there is anyone here who has experience with writing recommendations for UCAS or someone who deals with university admissions in the UK. Firstly, how would they deal with that situation (assuming that DH can't easily wiggle out of this responsibility to write some sort of recommendation)? Would they try to make the recommendation as half-hearted as possible, in the hope that the intended reader would understand this candidate is actually not a good choice. Would they just go all out and write 'in all honestly I cannot recommend this person' - I don't even think DH is allowed to do that according to the laws of the country we are in. The laws of those country dictate that the student has a right to see any recommendations or references given, which has led to a 'hidden code' developing where claiming that someone is 'good' on a reference actually means not very good at all, and only 'excellent, wonderful, outstanding' and other OTT expressions mean anything very positive.

If you were a university admissions person reading a British recommendation, how can you tell which ones are really enthusiastic and which ones are just pro-forma I'm-writing-this-because-I-have-to type statements?

Apologies for our ignorance in this matter. DH is not British, neither of us has worked at a British university, and when I was a student in the UK UCAS didn't even exist (what was the predecessor called?). DH's university is not good on providing training on how to deal with such matters - very much a 'get on with it and don't trouble us' attitude from HR. Would appreciate any tips.

Apologies too for the boring name change!

Lilymaid Sun 06-Jan-13 19:52:01

Predecessor of UCAS was UCCA.
My DS is currently doing an international year at a university (in the USA). His UK university is only prepared to recommend students with a good academic record and who will be good ambassadors for their university. How that works in practice, I don't know.

Sunnywithshowers Sun 06-Jan-13 19:52:21

Is it possible for your DH to refuse to give a reference?

WhataBoringNameChange Sun 06-Jan-13 20:03:36

'Is it possible for your DH to refuse to give a reference?'

He thinks not, as it is one of the rights of students in this country to receive a reference of some kind. I suppose the next step would be for him to enquire if it is possible to simply not let students go if they are not 'good ambassadors' - he's been doing these references for some years now and there has literally never been a problem before.

UCCA - ah, that takes me back! And the polys were PCAS, weren't they?

Boardiegirl Sun 06-Jan-13 20:14:29

Sometimes being a professional in this line of work means giving a frank reference and living with it Im afraid!
This sounds as though your dh doesnt want the student to know the ref has come from him. But why? He will be doing no one any favours if he puts anything less than the truth; albeit using diplomatic or non specific lexis. Hope this is useful.

creamteas Sun 06-Jan-13 20:16:37

As an admissions tutor I see lots of UCAS references, some are fulsome and some are bland, but neither really give an insight into what the student will be like so are not really much help! I have also seen very very occasional negative one (as in do not offer this student a place)!

When I am writing references for poor students, I stick to the verifiable facts. eg 'Student needs to improve interpersonal skills' is fine if that has been documented somewhere.

Were they disciplined for the assault? If so you are entitled to mention it. This is something many of our students don't realise. I had to tell one recently that the time they got drunk and assaulted their flatmate would have to go into their application to do a PGCE...

senua Sun 06-Jan-13 22:36:33

How good is the student's grasp of English? Will they understand the subtly conveyed by conditional verbs eg the difference beteen "X is a good student" and "X can be a good student" or, even, "X could be a good student" (because the receiver of the message will understand what is being said).

The other alternative, used in employment matters, is to stick to non-contentious fact and omit all value-judgements. So "X was employed by us as a clerk between 2005-2010." speaks volumes by what is not said - no mention of time keeping or sickness record so they might be dodgy; no effusiveness over personal qualities so again we assume that something is amiss.

There is always the third option: give a glowing reference to ensure that he leaves your department and becomes someone else's problem! wink

TheCollieDog Sun 06-Jan-13 22:54:55

once physically attacked a professor and the student is still allowed on campus??? shock I'd be straight to the union about that one & would be very reluctant to have such a student in my seminar room. Certainly not my office.

And I'm also surprised that if it's ERASMUS it goes via UCAS. We get our EU & US year/semester abroad students through specific exchange agreements with specific universities, hand-picked & vetted. Then we don't really choose the students after that.

We had a Departmental policy that if a difficult or unsatisfactory student asked for a reference, we would give the details of their studies -- we'd confirm they passed x y z courses. But nothing much more and this was explained to the student body to be a standard consequence of consistently unsatisfactory behaviour across a range of activities (and of course lots of personal tutorials etc over the 3 years pointing out unsatisfactory aspects of their behaviour in the course.

So the advice upthread to stick to bland facts is the way to go, and it could also indicate the unsatisfactory nature of the student by providing verifiable evidence eg "X attended my course in Advanced Hamster Wheel Maintenance. S/he attended 5 out of the 12 seminars. This is probably why X's final result for this module was in the lower part of the passing cohort."

or something like that. Frankly, such a student would probably not even be eligible to apply to a UK Year Abroad/ERASMUS scheme: they have to be averaging a 2, i with an excellent attendance record, at any university I've worked at.

There are standard phrases to describe a school pupil who is lazy or not good at concentrating, and you get to recognise them in a UCAS reference, but a UCAS reference is always accompanied by GCSE results, predicted results, and -- in the case of unsatisfactory students -- details of resits etc. So you see the concrete evidence of what might be glossed over in a written reference.

senua Mon 07-Jan-13 11:19:49

You could write a apparently-glowing reference that conveys the opposite message because it does not address the matter in hand. As an example, if someone wanted to apply to CERN you could write "X is the best particle physicist we have had in recent years" or you could write "Y makes a fantastic cup of tea". Both are positive and effusive but I think that X might edge it over Y!

Libra Mon 07-Jan-13 12:39:12

Agree with CollieDog - are you sure that the student is even eligible for Erasmus?

My university has a strict policy of not recommending students for Erasmus unless they are very good students, and the course leader has the right to veto a placing. All students are aware of this and I assure you that the veto is used! We do not want poor students representing our university abroad.

(As someone who frequently has Erasmus students in her class, I rely on my colleagues abroad to utlise such a veto as well. In general, I find Erasmus students bright, enthusiastic and a real benefit for the whole class because they can bring different perspectives to a debate).

MariscallRoad Mon 07-Jan-13 13:09:23

IMO you might need to sort out the legality of phrasing in the UCAS form and make the comments sound beyond doubt.

TheCollieDog Mon 07-Jan-13 13:14:08

As someone who frequently has Erasmus students in her class, I rely on my colleagues abroad to utlise such a veto as well. In general, I find Erasmus students bright, enthusiastic and a real benefit for the whole class because they can bring different perspectives to a debate

Absolutely! Ditto for USA JYA students.

WhataBoringNameChange Sun 20-Jan-13 18:35:13

Time for an update, I think, as the matter has now been resolved. First, thanks for all contributions. DH now has some ammo ideas for what to do if this situation ever happens again. His university is absolutely shit not too hot on providing training for this kind of thing.

Firstly, I accidentally gave some false info on my OP (resulting from a misunderstanding between DH and myself). The student in question threatened a prof with violence but did not actually attack him - obviously that makes a big difference. An actual attack would probably have resulted in a criminal record and immediate expulsion from the uni. As it was s/he got a formal warning, I believe.

DH has worked out how to wiggle out of the obligation to write the recommendation on a technicality (ie for any other student he wouldn't have bothered invoking this one obscure rule). He's quite relieved he doesn't have to write anything, but if forced to would have done what Collie Dog etc recommended and damned with faint praise. This, however, would have potentially led to legal action from the student concerned (yes, it's that kind of culture).

I also potentially didn't explain the uni recommendation system well enough. DH has to write some recommendations as part of his job, but is not solely responsible for all references in the department. The system is that students are allowed to approach anyone who has taught one of their courses and generally speaking you have to do so when asked. DH subsequently talked to someone in admin about this student, and apparently s/he had asked two other profs before getting round to DH (basically scraping the barrel grin) and both of them had refused because the student's behaviour had been so appalling in their classes. However, in doing so I believe the student could legitimately make a complaint about them. Isn't this a crazy system? When he came home and told me the denouement we both ended up laughing wildly at the insanity of it all. Dh is absolutely willing to stick his neck out for a good student, but not for someone like this.

However, this is the first time in 15 years anything like this has happened. Should he ever again have to write a reference for someone who is less than ideal he will undoubtedly use some of the excellent techniques listed here. Thanks indeed! Don't worry - he's not about to send anyone over to you if they're not able to cope and do credit to the place.

Syrupent Mon 21-Jan-13 15:00:54

I went to a meeting on this topic recently. The advice was to provide only bland references, any vague comments such as 'poor timekeeping' should only be used if it can be backed up with documentary evidence (class registers for example). In fact we were advised to provide only a very basic reference ie. X person studied at Y college between these dates!!

happilyconfused Mon 21-Jan-13 23:16:28

You can decline to give a reference. I have only been in that situation once. He was a poor attender, attitude issues, poor results and he wanted me to lie in order to back a personal statement that was for an a student who helped at school, volunteered for charities and did lost of subject specific hobbies. Parents got involved but no way was I going to support such a student

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