I have been applying to a bunch of grad programs recently and I have noticed that some schools, specially those based in the UK, ask students to upload the reference letters themselves to the application platform, instead of sending an e-mail to the nominated referees.

This puts me in an awkward position because the point of the letters is to be confidential and asking the professors to send them to me would mean that they would either refuse or send me a "plain" letter, as I have heard from colleagues that those are the replies they have been getting.

What is the proper way to proceed in this situation? How do I ask a professor to send me a decent letter that they would not mind me seeing?


3 Answers 3


I had this experience as a letter writer (in France). I just sent my letter to the applicant and she uploaded it. My letter was very positive so I did not think much about the situation although it did seem weird to me.

I think in some US Universities (in California?), when you submit your letter, you should indicate whether you allow the applicant to look at it or not. I do not write bad letters so I always indicate that I do not mind.


For what it's worth, in the US you are in fact legally entitled to see your letters under FERPA. Most schools ask you to waive your right by checking a box on the application. So it's not exactly true that the point of letters is to be confidential, it's just that programs think the letter is more reliable if it is. A professor who is honest with you shouldn't much care one way or the other.

Most professors already know that different countries have different standards for applications, so they shouldn't think it's weird that a UK school wants you to upload the letter yourself. If you have some concerns about whether they believe you, just send them a link to the instructions.

As for what kind of letter you will get, if a professor balks at giving you an open letter, then you probably don't want the letter anyway. I never understood why people make a big deal out of "confidentiality" when it comes to this.


As an applicant, the best and only thing you can do is follow the application guidelines.

When asking your professors for letters, explain the situation clearly, and perhaps provide a link to the application guidelines indicating that you are supposed to upload the letter yourself. Perhaps you could encourage your recommenders to include their contact information in the text of the letter itself. This is not only a gesture of integrity, but it also assures the recommender that reviewer will be able to contact them to confirm it hasn't been altered.

Ultimately, unless you have previously given your letter writers some reason to think that you will forge their letter (in which case you have bigger problems to deal with), I wouldn't worry about this at all. Although it's usually standard practice to keep letters secret, there are some programs like yours that ask applicants to upload or forward their letters themselves. If your recommenders haven't encountered this situation yet, they are bound to sooner or later.

Finally, some letter writers send a copy to the student anyway, just to offer encouragement or for use in later recommendations. For certain job applications, I used to include a quote from one of my letters of recommendation as a sort of "testimonial" to my work ethic. Depending on the field, you may find this useful—just ask permission first.

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