My Pet Peeve


I have a pet peeve. When folks I barely know ask me to write them a letter of recommendation or reference. I say no when I feel that my sense of personal integrity would be compromised in the process.

With youth, I don’t say no right away. I use it as a teaching moment. I ask them why they chose to ask me in particular. I ask what they hoped I would write about them. I ask if they felt I had the history and experience with them to be able to say that honestly. I ask them if…off the record…they want some candid feedback about my perception of the way they choose to operate in the world. (BTW, I don’t give it without permission.)

There are some young people I am delighted to say yes to when asked. First, I give them props for asking me before putting my name down as a reference. Then, I follow a similar conversational path as above. Why did you choose me? What do you hope I will write about you? What experience with me has led you to believe that I would write that? Off the record, would you like to get some candid feedback about how I see you operating in the world?

You want to know about the young people I really stand up and take notice of? The ones who anticipate. They recognize that I’m a busy person and I don’t have a lot of discretionary time on my hands. They approach me not only asking for the favor, but also with a piece of paper in hand with a draft letter that they would like me to send. Wow. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, I’m impressed! What a delight to sit with this young person and discuss what they wrote.

This translates directly to the college admissions process. Your high school students may someday need to ask one of their teachers for a recommendation letter—usually a teacher who taught your student an academic subject in the junior year. How helpful it would be for the teacher if your student was able to put in writing responses to the following prompts:

  • What were your favorite ideas or topics from this class? Why?
  • What assignment/project in this class were you most proud of?
  • As a student in this class, how would you describe yourself? What are your academic strengths and weaknesses?
  • Was there an obstacle that you faced and overcame? How have you grown as a result of this class?


Ok, I can hear it now…

I wish you would tell my student this. Can I bring him/her over to talk to you?

How about this instead? Print a copy of this blog and bring it home with you and casually say, “I read something interesting today.” 🙂


About Author

Page Cvelich

College/Teen Program Manager

Page Cvelich has brought a wealth of knowledge to the Work/Life Center from prior experience as a high school guidance counselor and parent education coordinator. Page has been responsible for setting up a high school college and career center, designing a career exploration program for teens and serving as a counselor at a backpacking camp in the Rockies. In her role as Teen/College Program Manager, Page enjoys interacting with small groups of parents and teens, as well as consulting one-on-one with parents and referring them to resources so that they are better able to provide the support and encouragement their kids need.


  1. Alison Bolen

    This was an important lesson for me when I applied to grad school. First, I received a glowing recommendation letter from my undergraduate college adviser, who was also an instructor in three of my classes. But then I tried and failed to find a few more instructors to write recommendations. I assumed at the time that if I had received As in their classes that I ranked high enough for a letter, and I was initially shocked when they said no to my requests for letters, one after the other.

    Now, twenty years later, I can understand completely that one semester with a shy undergrad who doesn't take the time to know you outside of class is not enough interaction for an honest recommendation letter. And how could they possibly have time to write letters for every A student who asks.

    What did I do instead? I asked for letters from managers at my place of employment, which felt like a plan B but actually made for excellent recommendations. These were people I worked with 40 hours a week, who knew my personality and my work ethic. Even if my role there was unrelated to my planned course of study, they were more equipped to write those letters, and they did so willingly.

    I like your approach to this situation, and I'll add that giving the students tips on who to turn to for letters instead might be another learning opportunity for them.

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