39

While it is an unethical academic practice, it is a fact that most recommendation letters for MS degrees in US and Europe from countries like India and China are written by students themselves. Students apply en masse; the faculty strength in departments in many universities is small; the few professors hardly get the time to write recommendations for all applying students. Moreover a 4-year engineering degree is dominated by coursework and professors are unlikely to get to know students outside the classroom.

Let us set aside the question of whom to blame for this practice and look at the question that comes up on most applicants' minds:

  • "In the event that I have to write a recommendation letter on my own, what are the points I need to bear in mind?"

I have the following points:

  • Ensuring similarity of language among all letters from a particular professor
  • maturity of presentation and avoidance of blandishment
  • Creating tonal differences among different recommendation letters.

Could someone elaborate on these points? The third one is oft-quoted but is found to be very tough to execute in practice.

| improve this question | | | | |
  • 23
    No. Just... no. – JeffE May 7 '12 at 10:18
  • 25
    Will all this suffice for him to apply? No. Recommendations are a must, and his profs simply won't write. What does the student do now? Let go of his opportunities because of the system's ineptitude? Or hack the system and write his own recos? – Bravo May 7 '12 at 12:42
  • 8
    @AndyW: I was enforced to write letter of recommendation for myself several times. In our country when you ask prof to write LoR, most of them says "Write it by yourself and I'll sign it" (and if you continue to insist on academic honesty, you can find yourself without any LoR). In other case, prof may agree to write letter for you, but he doesn't know English at all. And you have to translate that letter to English (in this case it's highly probably that letters would contain similar phrasing). So, it's definitely wrong to write letters by yourself. But sometimes there's no other way. – MVB May 7 '12 at 14:27
  • 19
    Even in North America I've been asked for a draft of a letter before that the writer then edits/adds onto. – Artem Kaznatcheev May 7 '12 at 16:33
  • 7
    I too have known American students asked to write their own letters of recommendation, or at least provide the framework for professors who may not know the student all that well, but still think highly of the work they do know. Or where the professor thinks the student knows better how to tailor a letter to another audience (say outside their field). – Fomite May 7 '12 at 23:29
17

The first point is impossible to carry out without a cross-sample of the professor's existing letters; obtaining such a cross-sample, however, is just as unethical as writing one's own letter of recommendation. The second is difficult for someone without experience of writing their own letters of recommendation, and the third point is challenging for anyone who isn't a good writer of his or her own accord.

In general, I have to admit that most letters of recommendation I receive from candidates in non-Western countries falls under the rubric of "not helpful to the candidate"; many actively hurt the candidate's chances by not providing any distinguishing information that can help me make a case for why this should be the one candidate in 20 we choose to admit. (Yes, we have an admit rate below 5% in my program!) On the other hand, having seen a number of candidates' applications with letters of recommendation that contain similar phrasing, I can attest that this usually raises my hackles—and usually leads me to rejecting such candidates from further consideration.

| improve this answer | | | | |
27

The ethics of the question is moot here; this practice is widespread, and the questioner is asking for a solution to his problem, not for an ethical reform of the international academic community.

The guidelines for such a letter would be identical to writing any other letter of recommendation. If you must write your own and have a professor sign off on it, read up on how to write a good letter of recommendation and follow any tips you may come across. You probably have little to no experience writing letters such as this one; there are many subtle nuances, both in what you say and in what you don't say. Take the time to write it correctly. If you find yourself completely stuck, ask someone else with experience to write it.

If you're having difficulty writing a letter about yourself, imagine you're writing about a colleague who has done all the things you have done. It may make the task easier.

Regarding trying to mimic the professor's style, if he asked you to write your own letter, then he likely asked all his other students to write their own letters. There will be no consistent style, and that will be a reality of this individual's letter. If the department/faculty member receiving the letter has received letters from this professor in the past, this likely will count against you, and you should consider that when asking this person for a recommendation.

| improve this answer | | | | |
  • 1
    ...or is receiving other letters from the same professor at the same time as yours... – JeffE May 16 '12 at 17:54
  • 4
    "The ethics of the question is moot here; this practice is widespread, and the questioner is asking for a solution to his problem, not for an ethical reform of the international academic community." I strongly disagree. Most unethical practices are widespread, done out of some duress, and so forth. Committing such a highly fraudulent academic practice could be grounds for dismissal in most American universities, so this is not even necessarily professionally wise. Moreover, encouraging others to engage in unethical behavior is also unethical. – Pete L. Clark Feb 4 '14 at 7:56
  • 9
    @PeteL.Clark - "Highly fraudulent behavior"... that's a very strong term for something that is so widespread as to be almost ubiquitous. I appreciate that you disagree with the practice, but this takes place everywhere, both in and out of academia. – eykanal Feb 4 '14 at 11:57
  • 1
    @eykanal: You can see from my profile the cultural background from which I make my statement: i.e., that I am an academic mathematician living in the United States. In this context, I stand by"highly fraudulent". I assure you that this practice is not "almost ubiquitous" among North American academics: at any institution I've been involved with, if it was discovered that a student wrote a graduate letter rather than the faculty member, it would at least be embarrassing and possibly worse. – Pete L. Clark Feb 5 '14 at 6:23
  • 1
    The question indicated graduate programs in the US. If you insist that foreign students are not held to the ethical standards of the programs they are applying to, aren't you telling people like me to avoid considering a large range of foreign applicants for admission? Is that your intent? – Pete L. Clark Feb 5 '14 at 6:25
12

When I applied for graduate studies, one of my recommendation letter providers was not that comfortable in English; he asked me to write the letter completely on my own and give it to him. He would edit it if necessary and then would submit it. I knew that he would not make many edits.

The point in such cases is to make a compromise: between the authenticity/credibility of the letter (which should ideally reduce your involvement) and the helping the language shortcomings of the professor (increasing your involvement)

As far as your 3 points are concerned, I strongly am against all of them.

Here is how you can try reaching a compromise:

  • In case the professor's first language is NOT English (which I believe is the case in India), go to him and talk to him in whatever language and extract bullet points of what he would like to write in a letter for you. The problem with most colleges is that the professor might have things to say but owing to language barriers, is unable to say it coherently in English. Thus, they are hesitant in writing their own letters. Go to him and explain it to him clearly what a recommendation letter is supposed to be and it's structure. Ask him for things he would like to say. It is important to let him be frank. Sometimes, they can be a bit hesitant to talk openly (if you don't make an atmosphere where you welcome negative comments about you, he will be very hesitant) make sure you are creating an open discussion.

  • Convert those bullet points into a skeleton. For instance, suppose he liked your analytical abilities but found you to be lazy (& cited classroom/research experiences for the same), you can have a skeleton like : Only student to have solved difficult problem - Analytical skills high - usually late with assignments although they are well thought - maybe lazy

  • Go over this process (talk, skeleton, talk, skeleton) till you have clarity in your skeleton. This might happen in the first attempt if the environment is set right or it might take several. It should contain essentials without grammar. Example (fictional): taught 3 courses, did well in all, strong:analysis,math,communication, weak:lazy,impatient, only student to have scored 100/100 in finals,add some examples or whatever

  • Give this to the professor to write it off assisting him when required. Although he might still be hesitant, try to work up a compromise.

Although this might not answer your actual question, I felt it was necessary to think of a way to cut through the problem when professors wish to give you the letter, have good things to say, have time but can't.

| improve this answer | | | | |
8

I realize this is a very old question, but I guess no harm in me adding my two pennies even after a year.

I agree that it's not good practice writing letters for oneself, but, a lot of bad things happen in academia and this is one of them. It happened to me, and that with a good and dedicated professor: it was just a set of circumstances.

While I asked this person for a letter a few months in advance and he agreed to write it when I apply somewhere, when I stumbled upon my (then, potential, now, current) supervisors, realized we want to work together, there was about a week left to apply for the grant. When I asked for a recommendation, the professor was on a conference / trip and could not find the time to do it himself. He asked me for a "draft" to see what points the letter should cover which he actually did modify later. And I have a feeling he would have preferred to write it than to just modify my writing, but, hey, circumstances.

So, the points I was focusing on when I was writing the letter:

  • For each letter-writer I contacted, I had a specific purpose in mind. Each of those people could attest to a different set of skills and give a different view of me.

    This particular letter was to attest how I have diverse interests (the professor had me on some small extra-curriculum classes), and how I'm good with working with students and explaining stuff (I did some T.A.-like work for him).

    So, basically, I wrote about the experiences, facts and results that made me want to ask this person for a letter in the first place. Shortly: Keep to the point and don't digress too much.

  • Support your statements by facts.

    (I guess) nobody wants a read list of synonyms for "awesome". A good rule might be: situation (in which the professor was working with you), result (of your working in that situation), conclusions and reasoning (about your ability, based on the situation).

  • Try to put the conclusions in context with what you are applying for.

    If you are writing a letter attesting (among other things) that you have diverse interests. Maybe you're applying something that is slightly different from your current/previous works, and having diverse interests and an aptitude for learning is certainly a strong point.

  • Make sure your language is flawless.

  • Keep to a structure. (not like my bullet points)

    A good one might be: firstly, introduce the professor. Shortly list all or some of the situations which make that professor a relevant and good choice for a reference. Secondly, for the "meat", expand on the reasoning for the recommendation. Lastly, summarize the good points and their relevance to the position you are applying for, and include a sentence explicitly saying that you the professor would recommend you. Something, maybe, like Based on my experience with Mister X., I would wholeheartedly recommend X for the position Y.

  • Don't write a novel. One page should be quite enough. (again, not like my answer :) )


I think this advice should not only help you to write a passable / good recommendation letter, but also increase the chances of the professor actually reading and reviewing what you wrote instead of just signing it. If everything is written concise and to the point, the professor (even the one with very little free time), might be more inclined to change things, because he can identify faster what he disagrees with, what he maybe wants to expand, add, or omit.

| improve this answer | | | | |
4

A lot has already said in previous comments. I will add the following points.

When you wrtie a letter of recommendation for others or yourself for others to endorse, make sure you write and justify :

  1. In which circumstances have you know the recommendee (student) and for how long ( 4 years undergrad.) in which capacity ( I am his professor of Biology) ?

  2. What is your impression of his academic achievements and skills (you have to back up with facts your statement) ?

  3. What do you think of his character and personality ?

  4. How much (strongly, simply) do you recommend him/her for other institutions ?

I hope this helps.

| improve this answer | | | | |
-3

There is a larger question at hand:

Why have you people been historically trusting a signed piece of paper?

There is never any good proof the person who wrote the text has been honest, even if this person holds a professor position at some university.

Letters of recommendations is the historic absurd which make no sense whatsoever.

Me too I had my letters of recommendations written not by professors but by other people who knew me (I'm from Russia). Why? Because when I approached professors only one really took the time and effort to write one, while others honestly said they didn't know how to write something like that and they didn't know me well enough to be a judge to my character. They told me to get the text written any way I liked it and they would sign it. That was it. So I asked other people if they would be kind enough to write a few words about me and they were.

There hasn't been a history of writing letters of recommendations in my country, then what do you expect people to do if they wish to apply to a Western university? They do fake letters and they will continue to do so for as long as this stupid practice exists.

The best advice I can give here is to ask somebody else who knows you well and knows your subject area well to write a letter for you. If you attempt to write about yourself it may eventually suck.

One other thought: in some countries (notably Germany) there is a practice of putting watermarks in this sort of papers (sequencing of words, particular wording and other tricks) to convey hidden information about the person. Sometimes it would make sense to put a notice into the letter stating that this text has been written by e.g a Chinese professor who is not familiar with hidden language ubiquitous in e.g Germany. Should such things be discovered this should be attributed to mere coincidence and should be discarded as such, the text written should be understood as it is written with no "alternative" interpretation.

With regard to the hidden language of reference letters:

The keywords to google for are "Geheimsprache", "Geheimcodes", "Zeugnissprache". There are tons of pages. Just a few to provide an overview:

Geheimcodes

Der Arbeitszeugnis-Code

| improve this answer | | | | |
  • 1
    Letters do contain phone numbers and email addresses, both can be faked, you can get a SkypeIn number from many countries. I knew a guy living in Germany who faked a Russian employer for another guy working in Canada. The system is flawed and there is little point in continuing to support it. – just_somebody May 16 '12 at 18:50
  • 9
    Why have you people been historically trusting a signed piece of paper? Because most of those letters are written by our colleagues; people we know professionally, if not personally. Because it is very rare that we get only one letter from anyone, and we trust that other people are as concerned about their ethical reputations as we are. Because letters include Google-verifiable phone numbers and email addresses (even letters from Russia), so that we can contact the author if we have any questions or suspicions. Because most letters (like most people) are honest. – JeffE May 16 '12 at 19:10
  • 1
    @JeffE: I admire your ability to google for names and contacts. Still, there are many older professors who are not very good at modern media and have but rudimentary Internet skills. For them it's hopeless to try to verify credentials in Internet. – just_somebody May 16 '12 at 19:14
  • 1
    @JeffE: "Because most letters (like most people) are honest. " - ideally yes. However (as pointed out in my and other answers) it's mode difficult than that. Not every student can 100% expect to get a reference letter, very much depends on his/her peers. And either they fake letters or they don't get any letter at all. Do you see here a way for them to be 100% honest? – just_somebody May 16 '12 at 19:16
  • 1
    While I appreciate your answer, this reads like a rant, and does not address the question at hand. – eykanal May 23 '12 at 20:00

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.