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If a student needs a reference letter for graduate admissions or that sort of thing, some profs will ask the student to write a reference letter for themself before sending it off to the prof for minor edits and finalization. This seems to be a somewhat common practice given that some graduate schools ask for several letters of recommendation even when it is not reasonable for the student to have developed deep connections with that many professors, and that most professors are just too busy to write quality letters for all the students that ask them to.

Is it acceptable to write most of the reference letter and have the prof make minor edits? Do academic institutions frown upon this practice? Would it be considered an academic offense if a student wrote a reference letter for themselves and had a prof sign it?

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I might even call that fraudulent, given that the professor signs it off as their own writing. It is absolutely unethical. A reference letter is the confidential, honest, and sole opinion of the referee(s). The sacrosanct trust of a confidential reference letter is broken when a student sees, or has direct input towards, the letter. –  Moriarty Feb 4 at 6:43
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@Moriarty that's why sometimes references are requested and not reference letters but a contact address, to contact the referers directly. IMHO, that's a much better practice. Specially if contacted by phone, skype or similar methods. –  Trylks Feb 4 at 10:46
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To repeat myself: No. Just...no. –  JeffE Feb 4 at 10:59
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@Moriarty the prof isn't signing off that they wrote it, but that they agree with it. One would hope that if the student made inaccurate claims that the prof would 'edit' that or throw it back to the student to correct. I would see it more as laziness than a con. –  JamesRyan Feb 4 at 17:34

5 Answers 5

up vote 21 down vote accepted

If a student needs a reference letter for graduate admissions or that sort of thing, some profs will ask the student to write a reference letter for themself before sending it off to the prof for minor edits and finalization.

Some profs lie, cheat and steal as well...occasionally in their professional life. Just because a practice is common does not make it right.

This seems to be a somewhat common practice given that some graduate schools ask for several letters of recommendation even when it is not reasonable for the student to have developed deep connections with that many professors, and that most professors are just too busy to write quality letters for all the students that ask them to.

It is certainly "reasonable" to ask for several letters of recommendation for graduate admissions. That many students will not have had substantial personal contact with faculty is something to keep in mind as one progresses through an undergraduate program. Also connections need not be especially deep in order to result in a good letter: if the writer can be confident that the student will succeed in the graduate program she is applying for, that is enough. Often a truly outstanding performance in a single course is sufficient.

Is it acceptable to write most of the reference letter and have the prof make minor edits?

No, this is a form of plagiarism and academic fraud. What you pass off as your written word must actually be yours except where you explicitly document to the contrary.

Do academic institutions frown upon this practice?

Many of them do, yes.

Would it be considered an academic offense if a student wrote a reference letter for themselves and had a prof sign it?

It depends on the institution and probably the nation in question but in the United States: yes, it certainly could be. If I found out that this happened in an application that I read, I would at the very least throw out the entire letter; I would probably be inclined to dismiss the entire application. I would probably not contact the faculty member because in my view they are equally culpable (if not more so because they should know better), but I would be much more skeptical of letters coming from that person and even that institution in the future.

The above takes a hard ethical line, as I am very frustrated with other answers to this and related questions that seem resigned that one must accept unethical behavior in this situation. But here is a different kind of answer:

A graduate admissions letter that a student writes for herself is going to be a bad letter compared to a "real" letter written by a qualified faculty member. A graduate admissions letter is a communication between one mature academic and another: how would a 22 year-old young adult know how to write such a letter in a convincing way? Without having read hundreds or thousands of other similar letters, how would she know what the faculty want to hear? She wouldn't. If you write your own letter, you are at best forging an ineffectively written letter. Surely you deserve a better one?

As for faculty being very busy: yes, we are. As for having lots of letters to write: yes, we do. But writing such letters is part of our job, so a faculty member who does not take time out to write a good letter is not a good faculty member, at least not in this aspect. Writing a good recommendation letter usually takes several hours and often more than one sitting.

How can you help your professor write a good letter (on their own!):

1) Give them lots of time to write the letter.

Academics are busy, and our schedules are uneven. If you give me something to do six weeks in advance, then maybe in week three I'll find a spare afternoon and be able to do it. Leaving much less than a month for someone to write a letter is getting off on the wrong foot and already implicitly asking for less than the best possible letter.

2) Provide information about yourself rather than waiting for the faculty member to ask.

You should not write the letter yourself, but you should certainly include all information that you think might be pertinent, and you are well within your rights to highlight certain information that you think might be especially pertinent. Preparing something like a CV but tailored for a good letter rather than a job would be ideal.

3) Do everything in your power to minimize the attendant clerical work in submitting the letter.

Faculty members are busy and also, honestly, a bit lazy/snooty about routine work. If you tell me to mail a letter to a certain address, then there is going to be a whole day in which I print out the letter and don't get around to correctly putting it in an envelope. If the letters still need to be mailed (fewer and fewer do, and most but not all faculty members prefer to do things electronically), it would be wise to provide a self-addressed stamped envelope. If the submission is electronic, again try to ensure that the faculty member needs to do as little as possible. Ideally we get a website and a password, we enter those in, and we immediately upload the letter. Much more than that is asking for trouble. My own university makes faculty members jump through many more hoops to submit a letter, and this worries the hell out of me.

3') If your letter needs to be sent to multiple locations in a way which requires the faculty member to do something multiple times, see if you can figure out a way for the faculty member to submit the letter only once. E.g., perhaps there is an administrative assistant (AA) at your institution that will agree to receive the letter and take care of the nitty gritty of sending it to various places. You may have to ask for this, and you should ask, as nicely as you possibly can. Given the choice between getting a faculty member to do this clerical work and getting an AA to do it, you want the AA to do it: they are superior in every way. Always remember to be extra nice to the AA's: you want in fact to be nicer to them than the average person they have to interact with, as then they will notice and do better work for you than the average person they have to interact with. If you're asking an AA to do something which it is not absolutely clearly part of their job description, go ahead and ask but be extra extra nice: a small gift at the end is a classy move.

4) Don't be shy about checking up on the faculty member to see whether the letter has been written.

I frankly expect this, to the extent that if you ask me for a letter (including giving me all the information) and never check back again, I almost believe that you changed your mind and didn't really need it after all. It is totally acceptable to ask multiple times for the faculty to turn in the letter. I'm afraid that there has been "email alert inflation" in recent years, to the extent that if I only get one email about something, it feels almost optional. Really important things have a way of resulting in multiple emails coming at shorter and shorter intervals. Even to get me to write my grant reports they are not shy about sending several. You should always be nice about this -- at any point the faculty member could in theory change their mind -- but we are grateful if it is your mental energy which is being spent on making sure it gets done.

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I agree that the practice is unethical, but because confidentiality in the letter-writing process has been broken, not because the letter signer is attesting that the work is his own written work the same way that a journal article has to be written by its authors. The author is signaling her support of the ideas contained in the letter. (For example, what if the letter is written in a foreign language and then translated by a co-worker into English? The author didn't "write" the letter anymore, but is it no longer valid?) –  aeismail Feb 4 at 8:25
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I think there are some cultural issues at work here. For instance, in Germany, there are many things where a professor has to officially "sign off" on something. Often times the professor will not have the ability to draft the letter or document themselves—their group members will draft the letter and edit it. (For instance, changes in course outlines, requests for internal funding, grade changes, and so on.) Officially, though the professor is the only one who can sign it. So is the professor committing plagiarism? –  aeismail Feb 4 at 8:57
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I frankly expect this, to the extent that if you ask me for a letter (including giving me all the information) and never check back again, I almost believe that you changed your mind and didn't really need it after all.. People I've asked for reference letters usually sent me a confirmation after they had send them, to which I then replied with a small thank you. –  gerrit Feb 4 at 10:25
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@JeffE: I was responding to the claim: "in academia you are never allowed to take someone else's words, ideas and/or opinions and pretend they are your own." And over here, "letters of recommendation" are often treated the way I described. (An underling writes the letter, and the boss signs off on it.) It shouldn't be that way, but it often is. –  aeismail Feb 4 at 11:14
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@hesson: It sounds like a bit of a joke to me, to be honest. If you feel as strongly about this as I do, you will not suggest that your students write even a little bit of their own recommendation letters. But it is probably best to view this as an idiosyncratic way of providing the information for the letter rather than writing the letter itself. So in summary: I am not amused by your professor's practice, but without further incriminating information I would not describe it as "academic fraud", no. –  Pete L. Clark Feb 4 at 18:35

I don't think this is a grey zone at all. Senior professionals in all domains, not just acadaemia, routinely sign letters that they did not pen:

  • Directors signing press releases written by communications managers
  • Vice-chancellors signing letters to government officials written by deputy vice chancellors
  • Academics submitting journal articles that were written by a co-author, although the research is shared.

It's completely irrelevant who actually put the words together, unless there is a question over the copyright of the text - which there clearly isn't here. All that matters is that the person signing the letter stands by its content and takes responsibility for it.

If you write a reference letter for yourself that is over the top, they won't sign it. No ethical issues here whatsoever.

(I can't answer whether other institutions would frown on the practice for other reasons though.)

EDIT

Ok, some research.

Tip: Don’t ask the candidate to write a draft of the letter for you. Most heads of labs say this rarely saves time and sometimes leads to a weaker letter. It is better for the candidate to provide you with all the necessary information, from which you can then pick and choose as you write your letter.

... (and for the applicant)

You may be asked to write a draft of the letter. As mentioned on page 1, many heads of laboratories say this is not a good idea. However, if you are asked to do it, do it!

http://www.hhmi.org/sites/default/files/Educational%20Materials/Lab%20Management/letter.pdf

When requesting a letter of recommendation, don't be surprised if your instructor or supervisor hands the forms back to you and says, "Sure, why don't you go ahead and write the first draft yourself, and I'll revise it and sign at the bottom."

http://www.petersons.com/college-search/letter-recommendation-writing-yourself.aspx

The “draft” that you provide to the recommender to sign shouldn’t be a draft at all – it should be a perfectly polished letter ready to be signed, sealed and delivered. Don’t be insulted when your supervisor decides to edit. They’ll want to apply their own language and voice to your content. ... I’ve been asked to write lots of letters of recommendations for students, but I’ve never felt strongly enough to throw the responsibility back at someone. That’s not to say I haven’t managed some phenomenal students; I just haven’t had someone come along who I think is up to the task. So, when he or she does come along, that person will really be top notch.

http://studentbranding.com/writing-your-own-letter-of-recommendation/

While the standard practice is for references to write their own recommendation letters, it’s becoming increasingly common for time-strapped individuals to ask you to pen the first draft of a letter yourself.

http://www.vault.com/blog/job-search/how-to-write-your-own-recommendation-letter/

Question: Is it OK to Write My Own Letter of Recommendation? Answer: The only time it is acceptable to write your own letter of recommendation is when the person you requested the letter from asks you to do it. Even then, it is important to be honest in the letter. Don't write anything the other person wouldn't have written. When you have finished, ask the person to look over the letter, verify the information, and sign. You should never forge someone else's signature.

http://businessmajors.about.com/od/recommendationletterfaq/f/WritOwnRecLet.htm

I don't see much (any) evidence of any ethical quandaries in a professor requesting and submitting a letter of recommendation directly from the student. These examples aren't cherry-picked - they're the first few hits that came up when searching for phrases like "own letter of recommendation" or "letter of recommendation myself".

In summary:

Is it acceptable to write most of the reference letter and have the prof make minor edits?

Clearly, yes - if requested to do so.

Do academic institutions frown upon this practice?

No.

Would it be considered an academic offense if a student wrote a reference letter for themselves and had a prof sign it?

Hell no.

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There is a difference between a letter written on behalf of an organization or group and a personal letter. In American academia, recommendation letters are personal: the author is not speaking for anyone but herself. The writer is also being asked to use their professional skills and experience to evaluate the student: signing a letter that you didn't write is falsely alleging that you have done some professional task: that's a form of academic fraud. –  Pete L. Clark Feb 4 at 16:08
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I don't think it's any different to writing to the Queen and getting a letter back which was obviously not written by her individually. Same for any public figure, or anyone really. Unless the content explicitly says "I'm personally writing this because..." there's no implication that they wrote it. Just endorsement. –  Steve Bennett Feb 5 at 0:23
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By the same token, when a sports person appears in an advertisement saying, "To perform at my best, I drink Mr Fizzy" - does anyone think they wrote that copy themselves? Of course not. They're just endorsing its content without making any claim of authorship. –  Steve Bennett Feb 5 at 0:24
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Let me summarize many now deleted comments: I am distressed by this answer. I find it irresponsible, and I hope that students (and faculty) are not led astray by it. –  Pete L. Clark Feb 11 at 1:28
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I agree completely with @PeteL.Clark that any prof who asks a student to write the letter is shirking an important professional responsibility. I don't doubt the practice is widespread, but I didn't think anybody thought it was acceptable. –  shane Mar 29 at 17:31

There are certainly different degrees of flagrancy here. I know some good professors who will ask for a short paragraph just to "get the juices flowing", but will then modify and expand it into a full letter. I don't think that is wrong, although I wouldn't do it myself.

If the professor signs a letter written by the student without making any modifications, or if the final letter consists mostly of the student's words, I consider that fraudulent -- but it is primarily the professor's fraud. After all, the professor is the one signing his name.

When I write letters, I require the student to give me all the relevant records as well as a description of what they think I should emphasize in the letter. Not a single word of their description would ever be pasted into the letter, and I don't use it as a starting point for the text. It is simply their opportunity to remind me of the impressive things they have done, which I will then write about if I agree.

If I can't write a letter for them in my own words -- for whatever reason -- I will decline to write one at all.

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@PeteL.Clark Good point; I have edited my answer accordingly. –  David Ketcheson Feb 4 at 18:38
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If someone who has a ph.d. tells me they need an undergrad to give them a paragraph to "get the juices flowing," I would automatically assume that person was a moron. –  shane Mar 29 at 17:38

The question is clearly a grey-zone in that a range of scenarios exist from a self-written letter uncritically signed by someone and sent off to using the self-written text as a base for expansion and critical rewriting by the signee. The former devalues the whole idea of recommendation letters whereas the latter may not be too different from verbally asking about the purpose of the letter. I ask students to provide a text that contains information they think should be in the letter (based on, for example, what information is requested in the application) and then make the changes I see necessary to put my name on the letter. this means I add my valuation of their academic traits. I do this when students apply for money from minor funds but never if they apply for an academic job. A key aspect for me is that the letter will carry my name and I therefore need to stand behind it.

The text I ask a student to provide provides me with details bout the project that I can consider and reject if I deem it not to be possible to support.

Where this becomes problematic, to say the least, is if one would simply sign off on a letter, edits or not and don not even care what it contains. This will be contributing to inflation in the meaning of such letters. I happened to have a very strict advisor in this sense, and as graduate students we always considered whether or not it was useful to get a letter from (in this case ) him. But, the positive in the letter was a real positive. The problem was of course you never knew what sort of letters the "competition" provided in applications. Hence not taking letters of recommendation seriously causes inflation and reduces the worth of them. This is probably why personal references (in the case of job searches) who you contact over conference phone become more important.

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"This is clearly a grey-zone." It is not clear: in my opinion it is a highly -- almost maximally -- unethical practice to pass off your own written words (concerning yourself!) as those of someone else. Providing information that you think might be help your recommender in writing a letter is not the same thing at all...clearly. –  Pete L. Clark Feb 4 at 8:03
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@PeteL.Clark I think it is not unethical at all, if the one signing does sincerely agree with exactly what is written. I've been approached by students to sign their words, when I did not know much about the student at all...of course I would never do so, because I would not sign my name to something I do not agree with. –  earthling Feb 4 at 8:09
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@PeteL.Clark I do not believe this is an issue of plagiarism. In plagiarism, you wrote something worthy of writing and I am taking credit for it (stealing an idea). In this case, I am trying to put my words into your mouth. If you agree, then we both agree and there is no plagiaristic conflict. –  earthling Feb 4 at 8:41
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@PeteL.Clark I think we will have to agree to disagree on this (because this is not a discussion board and this is going on a bit long). If you look at your link, the first words are Plagiarism is the "wrongful appropriation" in other words, you are stealing (words or ideas) from someone. If I ask you to say something on my behalf, how could you consider that you are stealing my words or ideas? –  earthling Feb 4 at 10:13
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Just because I sign something doesn't mean I've written it. I've signed plenty of petitions because I agree with the content, without claiming the text is mine in any way. –  gerrit Feb 4 at 10:31

While I can believe that some unscrupulous professors would simply take the student's letter and sign it, the one prof that have asked me to write a reference letter have mostly done it as an exercise for me to evaluate myself. I wrote a letter and brought it to him and then he gave me feedback about the letter and what I said about it, and then showed me the entirely different letter that he ended up writing himself.

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