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The student claims that the department contacted him asking for all letters in printed form with full contact details and signature.

Is this a common request? How do I know it's authentic? How should I respond?

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    Your question is a bit unclear. Is the student asking you to send the letter directly to the school in a sealed envelope or is she asking you to give her the letter in a sealed envelope? The former is quite common and shouldn't really raise any red flags. – Brian Borchers Jan 6 '18 at 5:15
  • @Brian Borchers I am wondering why they would ask for the letter in printed form, given that I have send it online? – Michael J. Jan 6 '18 at 5:17
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    Did they originally ask you for the recommendation letter through an online system? If so, this is weird. If you simply emailed it to the department, then it's not surprising that they want a copy on letterhead. Why not contact the department and ask what their policy is? – Brian Borchers Jan 6 '18 at 5:19
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    This is why I prepare all LORs electronically and save a copy before sending on line. I've never gotten a request like the one mentioned, but if I did, I'd be able to print on letterhead and send exactly the same words as were submitted electronically. – Bob Brown Jan 6 '18 at 15:54
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    @JeffE You'd hope so! On the other hand, it's easier to contact one student than three or so referees, and I've known academic departments to, ah, take the path of less resistance. As long as the paper letter is sent directly to the department, it should be OK. I might even add a Post-It note saying, "the student asked me to send this." If all is OK, there's no harm. If something is up, you've given a clue. – Bob Brown Jan 6 '18 at 16:57
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It's completely possible a school might ask for an original letter on paper sent direct to them.

It's been identified as a US school but not which one. There are perhaps 600 graduate institutions in the US. Multiply that times the number of programs. There simply has to be some variance in admissions policies. At any particular school, it's completely possible they have an admissions policy of auditing LORs by asking for paper copies of all or some subsets of those submitted electronically. There's no national standard on this kind of thing.

(I was surprised when University of Washington wanted paper originals of my own LORs for my first faculty appointment a few years ago. So I figure there have to be schools that might want paper originals for student LORs.)

If you're unsure of the authenticity of the request, you might ask to see the communications the student received. But once satisfied, I'd try to comply. (I keep copies of the LORs I write so I can resend them with a new inside address when a student applies elsewhere; I assume you do, too.)

I would, of course, only accept a request for an original sent direct to the school. A request that the original be given to the student for delivery to the school would ring bells as bogus and likely end the need for any new LORs for that individual.

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  • I'm curious about the downvote. Was there something that seemed unhelpful? – Nicole Hamilton Jan 6 '18 at 16:46
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No, it's not common.

I would guess that for some reason the department is not convinced that the letter really came from you. Maybe there was something about the letter, or the student, that raised their suspicions; or maybe they just don't trust the security of their online system. It's not really your concern, so I would just send the letter as they ask.

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  • In my experience it's pretty common that someone requests the original of a LoR. Sadly the use and acceptance of digital signatures isn't that common. hopefully this will change. – user64845 Jan 6 '18 at 11:24
  • @DSVA Using digital signatures does not solve the authenticity problem, unless you have a separate channel to verify them. – Federico Poloni Jan 6 '18 at 11:38
  • @FedericoPoloni of course. Sorry I mixed up the english terms, what I mean are electronic signatures which are verified by a trustworthy 3rd party. – user64845 Jan 6 '18 at 11:47

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