How To Decline Writing a Student Recommendation Letter

Updated December 2, 2022

Writing a letter of recommendation on behalf of a candidate can be an exciting opportunity for educators seeking to support student achievement. Though, there are a few situations in which educators may not feel comfortable writing a letter of recommendation to endorse a student's abilities. With this, there are a few steps educators can take to craft an appropriate response when declining the opportunity to write a student recommendation letter.

In this article, we outline what a letter of recommendation is, reasons you may decline to write one, how to do so, the benefits of doing so appropriately and example responses.

What is a letter of recommendation?

A letter of recommendation is a written endorsement of an individual's work ethic, skills or academic performance. Employers, teachers, professors, coaches or professional references typically write letters of recommendation on behalf of their employees, students, mentees or colleagues when they apply for jobs, grants or admission to academic programs. Recommenders may include the following components in their letters to support a candidate:

  • Introduction to the candidate and the recommender's reason for writing

  • Explanation of the recommender's relationship to the candidate

  • Details about why the candidate is qualified for employment or admission

  • Discussion of a candidate's specific skills and how they're relevant

  • Anecdotes that support a candidate's abilities

  • Any details about reservations the recommender may have

  • The recommender's endorsement of the candidate

  • An offer to provide more information along with the recommender's contact information

From here, recommenders send their letters directly to employers or admissions offices for consideration along with a candidate's other application materials. Those who work in human resources or academic admissions typically take these letters into account and use them as a factor when forming a decision regarding a candidate's status.

Read more: What Is a Letter of Recommendation?

Reasons you might decline to write a student recommendation letter

Many educators welcome the opportunity to write a student recommendation letter, but there are some situations in which a professional may decide to decline this responsibility. Though some educators may feel an obligation to write a student's recommendation letter, it is appropriate to decline a request politely for certain reasons. Here are a few of those reasons explained:

  • Lack of knowledge about the candidate's abilities: A recommender may decline a student's request to write a letter of recommendation if they don't know enough about the student's abilities to endorse them. Without a working knowledge of a candidate's qualifications and anecdotal evidence to support an endorsement, a recommender may feel uncomfortable serving as a reference.

  • Inability to endorse the candidate: If a recommender feels that they can't endorse a candidate's qualifications, they may decline a request to write a letter on their behalf. For instance, if a student has performed poorly in the past and hasn't worked on improving their performance, a recommender may find it challenging to vouch for their abilities.

  • Nature of the recommender's relationship with the candidate: It's important for recommenders to be able to explain the nature of their relationship with a candidate. If a recommender only taught a student for one semester, it's possible they may not have known the student long enough to get an accurate idea of their qualifications or feel able to write a letter on their behalf.

  • Not enough time to complete the recommendation: Educators commonly receive multiple requests to write letters of recommendation during application seasons. Therefore, if they're already overloaded with their teaching responsibilities and writing various recommendations, they may decline a request to write a letter on the basis that they don't have enough time to do so.

Related: Letter of Recommendation for College Students

How to decline to write a student recommendation letter

Declining to write a student recommendation letter can be a challenging task—even when educators have a legitimate reason for declining, they often feel compelled to do so through a commitment to their students' success. Despite these conflicting feelings, there are a few essential steps you can take to decline the opportunity to write a student recommendation letter appropriately and respectfully. Here's a step-by-step guide for doing so:

1. Respond to the student's request in a timely manner

Once you decide that you'd like to decline to write a student recommendation letter, make sure you respond to their request within a reasonable timeframe. It's important that the student has enough time to reconfigure their applications and request a recommendation letter from somebody else. Therefore, try to respond to the student's request within a few days or one week at the very most so they can make any necessary shifts.

Related: How To Address Someone in an Email

2. Write a brief email in a professional tone

To respond, write a brief email addressed to the student that conveys your message intelligibly and in a professional tone. Consider starting off on a positive note by sharing your excitement regarding the academic opportunity the student is pursuing or the career path they want to take. From here, you can begin to detail your reasoning for declining the opportunity to write a recommendation letter on their behalf.

3. Provide an honest reason for declining the opportunity

While it's helpful to remain positive when declining to write a student recommendation letter, try to offer an honest reason for doing so. You can use one of the reasons listed above if it applies to your situation or explain your own perspective. Whatever reason you decide is most fitting, remember to use "I" statements that center your perspective on your reasoning rather than the student's abilities or performance. This strategy can help the student recognize your perspective more easily and allow you to avoid hurting their feelings.

Related: How To Nicely Say "No" (With 50 Examples)

4. Offer to help promote their candidacy through other methods

After stating your reasoning for declining the opportunity to write the student's recommendation letter, offer your support in a different capacity if you feel capable of it. Consider offering to read their resume, brainstorm ideas for their personal statement or connect them with other recommenders who may be more willing to write a letter. This can allow you to promote the student's candidacy without having to write a letter on their behalf.

5. Show gratitude for their request

Either at the beginning or end of your email, show your gratitude for the student's request. The student likely chose you as their recommender because they place you in high regard and value your opinion. Therefore, when declining the opportunity to write their recommendation letter, you can be respectful by explicitly offering your appreciation. From here, you can close your message by wishing the student the best in their application process and signing off with a professional salutation.

Related: How To Write a Professional Email

Benefits of appropriately declining to write a student recommendation letter

It's important to decline to write a student recommendation letter in an appropriate manner. Here are a few benefits of doing so to demonstrate this importance:

  • Students may appreciate your honesty and professional response. When you decline to write a student recommendation letter professionally and offer an honest reason for doing so, students may respect your transparency. While they may feel disappointed that you can't write a letter of recommendation on their behalf, it's likely that they'll value your truthful response and understand that it may be better for another educator to endorse their qualifications.

  • Declining allows students to better identify who would serve as a suitable recommender. If you appropriately decline to write a student recommendation letter and provide sound reasoning for it, students may be able to recognize why you're not a suitable recommender for them. From here, they may gain a better understanding of who might be a more fitting choice for a recommender.

  • When you respond in a timely manner, students can reconfigure and request a letter from another recommender. Declining to write a student recommendation letter appropriately typically requires you to do so within a reasonable timeframe. From here, students can have enough time to make the necessary shifts to request letters from alternative recommenders.

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Example emails for declining to write a recommendation letter

When writing an email to a student to decline the opportunity to write a recommendation letter on their behalf, it may be helpful to review a few example emails and use them as a guide. Here are a couple of examples of how you can respond to decline a recommendation request, including reasons from the list above:

Lack of knowledge about a student's abilities

If you don't have enough knowledge about a student's abilities—whether this is because you only taught them for one semester or you don't have a close relationship with the student—you can use this as a reason to justify declining their request. Here's an example email using this reason as a basis:

Dear Katie,

Thank you for reaching out to me regarding a recommendation letter. I'm humbled that you thought of me for this opportunity and I'm excited to learn that you're applying to Johnson State College, as I believe this school would be a great fit for you. Unfortunately, because I only had the pleasure of teaching you for one semester, I do not feel that I have enough knowledge about your abilities and performance as a student to write an accurate letter on your behalf.

I would be happy to assist you with other aspects of your application, though, and support you throughout the process. If you'd like me to look over your resume, personal statement or other materials, please reach out to me. I wish you the best of luck with everything.

Ms. Weiss

Not enough time to write the recommendation letter

If a student requests a letter of recommendation from you late in an application season, you may not have enough time to dedicate to writing their letter. You can explain this to the student and offer to help them search for an alternative recommender. Here's an example letter using this reasoning:

Dear Aaron,

Thank you for asking me to write your recommendation letter—I'm happy to learn that you're applying to Green Village Community College for the upcoming semester to pursue your associate degree. Unfortunately, because it's late in the application season, I don't think I'll have enough time to write a letter on your behalf. I received 15 requests from other students at the start of the academic year, and writing these letters in addition to my teaching commitments has overwhelmed my schedule for the time being.

I apologize for the inconvenience and want you to know that I endorse your decision to continue your education. I'm happy to support you throughout the application process in other ways by reviewing your resume, proofreading your personal statement or helping you find an alternative recommender to write you a letter. Further, if you choose to apply for admission next semester instead, I would be happy to write you a letter of recommendation so long as you request it within a reasonable timeframe. Please reach out to me if you have any ideas about how I can assist you.

Best wishes,
Mr. Sanford

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