Although most students hope for, and many students even feel entitled to, positive letters of recommendation, some might wonder about the possibility of a bad letter of recommendation. Do professors ever write letters of recommendation that are negative?
The answer to this question will be explored in greater depth in this article.
Do Professors Ever Write Bad Letters of Recommendation
The answer to this question is yes, sometimes professors do write bad letters of recommendation. Although most professors try to write positive letters of recommendation most of the time, there are occasions when the letter of recommendation will be either too generic, or may actually express reservations about the student.
What Does a Bad Letter of Recommendation Look Like?
A bad letter of recommendation could be anything within a spectrum of just too generic and unenthusiastic to be considered “good,” to a letter that explicitly does not recommend a student or contains negative information about him or her.
If the letter contains too many clichés or generic statements, the admission committee will likely be unimpressed, as there is nothing to make the applicant stand out from the other applicants.
Additionally, if there are no specific examples of success, then the letter reader may question how factually correct the letter of recommendation is.
Another cautionary element could be “loaded phrases” such as “a lot of potential,” “improvement,” or “effort,” which, if not more than balanced out with a lot of positive evidence, could be a polite way of warning the letter reader that this student is not really doing as well as his or her peers.
Another quality that could make a letter of recommendation “bad” could be if a letter is too short. This, of course, indicates that the professor did not have sufficient positive things to say about the student.
If the letter of recommendation is not proofread, or it contains grammar or spelling errors, this will also contribute to a poor letter of recommendation.
Even if the content is positive, it may seem to the admissions committee that the person who wrote the letter may not be of a high enough caliber to be taken seriously, or that he or she simply didn’t care enough about this student to take the time or to make the effort to write the best letter possible.
What Happens If You Get a Bad Letter of Recommendation?
Occasionally, an admissions committee or employer may be willing to overlook a poor letter of recommendation, such as if the rest of the application package is strong enough or if they happen to have extra room in their program.
More often, however, a negative letter of recommendation is likely to get your application set aside and can be extremely damaging to your prospects of getting accepted to your dream program or job.
Even if the letter is simply not “good,” when then are limited spaces available for a program or job, a neutral or unimpressive letter of recommendation could mean the difference between someone else getting chosen for a spot in the program or job versus you getting chosen.
Is it Illegal to Write a Bad Letter of Recommendation?
You may have heard that employers or professors will not give a bad recommendation because they don’t want to get sued. Although a fear of getting sued may prevent many people from giving a bad recommendation, it is not technically true that giving a bad recommendation is illegal.
If the professor writes anything negative, however, they need to be able to support any negative assertions with evidence. If they cannot support their assertions with evidence, they may be held liable for libel or even defamation of character, which is probably something they and their school would rather avoid.
What Makes a Good Letter of Recommendation?
In order for a letter or recommendation to truly be considered “good,” not only should it only reflect positively on the student, but it should also have an excellent balance of specifics that show evidence of the student’s contributions, as well as specifics about their values, motivations, and qualities that make them special and unique from the sea of other applicants.
Of course, it should not include any negative information, and should have minimal amounts of information that might be considered cliché or generic.
Although it may be important to highlight the student’s motivations and values, it is important to do this in a way that does not reveal any protected information about the student that could be used in a discriminatory way, such as the student’s religion, race, nationality, or sexual orientation.
Do Professors Write Negative Letters of Recommendation
Unfortunately, yes, sometimes professors do write letters of recommendation that are negative or bad. Most of the time, most professors attempt to write good letters of recommendation, but there are times when the letter of recommendation will be negative, or may be too generic to be considered good.