I am a graduate student at a US university, and earlier this week I asked a former undergraduate mentee if in her evaluation I qualified for an "excellence in mentorship" award. She responded enthusiastically, and just today wrote the she finished it. She also offered to let me review it to make sure she's included all pertinent information.

All the past letters of recommendation I've received have been closed-envelope letters that I don't have the opportunity to review, I am not sure how to respond. I trust her to write a good letter, and would probably have little if anything to say, but I certainly wouldn't mind having a chance to be sure.

Basically, years of closed-envelope letters of recommendation have conditioned to feel that it is not appropriate to be able to read your own letter. However, the only reason I know for that is to allow writers to speak freely, without the pressure or awkward situation that would arise if one were to ask for the opportunity to read their own letter. On the other hand, this one was freely offered, and so I am not compromising the writer's ability to speak freely.

Do you see any reason, ethical or practical, to turn down my mentee's offer?

  • 4
    People offer “freely” all sorts of things with an eye towards benefiting somehow from the things they are offering being accepted. Not reading the letter is the only way to be sure you are not taking part in a quid pro quo of some sort, and that the student is incentivized to write the truth about you and is not influenced (consciously or even unconsciously) by other factors.
    – Dan Romik
    Sep 24 '21 at 22:55
  • I've done this (made the offer) but generally with the expectation that it will be declined. I consider it a friendly gesture, nothing more. If they decided to read it, fine, it's not a big deal. I expect nothing in return.
    – acpilot
    Sep 25 '21 at 2:31
  • finished 'it' what is it?
    – BCLC
    Sep 29 '21 at 10:34

This is clearly a judgment call, but upon reflection my advice is for you not to read the letter.

There is a tiny chance that the student wrote -- presumably unintentionally -- something that you won't like, but that is really going to hit hard in the present context. (Long ago a faculty member wrote a recommendation letter for me and it got accidentally sent...to me! I didn't know what it was until I started reading it. The letter was overall very positive, but the one flaw in my work was...well, I won't say, but that was more than 15 years ago and I still remember what it was. I don't remember anything else in it specifically.) I don't think this is a serious worry, but compare that to what you have now: a totally positive, sunny black box.

More significantly, although the student "offered to let me review it to make sure she's included all pertinent information," if you actually find something that seems incorrect, getting her to change it gets awkward really fast: calling for a factual change should be ethically permissible, but I would rather not get anywhere near the terrain of rewriting the student's letter. You say that you trust her to write the letter, so...great; you're not worried about needing to change what's in it.

I have read lots of letters of approximately this type: namely, where a student says nice things about their instructor (in the context of a departmental tenure / promotion case, a teaching award nomination, and so forth). There is really not much in the way of specific expectations for what a student should say, how they should format it, and so forth. I find it quite unlikely that this letter is going to be read with the kind of critical eye that would justify even getting the student to take the trouble of revising it.

Finally, the student probably doesn't know the academic culture that these types of letters are usually not read: from my limited experience with the nonacademic world, I believe it's quite different out there. I think the student is trying to do something nice for you but has landed on the wrong thing. Here is a suggestion: tell the student that you don't need to read the letter and in fact are used to thinking of academic recommendation letters as confidential. But if she would be willing to write a small note or card addressed to you, you would enjoy that and would hold onto it.

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    I agree with most of this, but I would be careful about the suggestions in the last paragraph. It seems the most straightforward reading of the student's comments is that showing the OP the letter is a request for content editing, not a subtle way to compliment the OP. And a request from a person in a position of power, to a student, to write a note or card could put a student in a very awkward situation. I think the enthusiastic willingness to write the letter in the first place is all the affirmation one needs and can reasonably expect. Sep 24 '21 at 23:24
  • I have some questions motivated purely by curiosity: Did you agree that it was a flaw? Do you think becoming aware of it was positive, overall, for your development as a mathematician? Sep 25 '21 at 10:45
  • @Greg: I am certainly sympathetic to issues of power dynamics in academia. I would say that the OP should be clear that they do not want to read the letter, and if the student wants to give him something to read, they could do that separately. Also when I was writing the answer I did not have in mind that the OP solicited the letter in the first place. With that detail in place I actually wouldn't mention the last part. Sep 25 '21 at 15:24
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    @Steven: The gist of it was that I was doing good work using the tools of others rather than making my own tools. I am not really sure whether I was doing that any more than other mathematicians in my cohort. Nor am I sure how much I do that today! The biggest effect that it had, honestly, was to remove the temptation to read what others have written about me since then: it didn't ruin my day, much less my life, but it would have been better if I hadn't read it. Sep 25 '21 at 15:36

First, kudos for being in the running for the award, and for earning this kind of student response.

I would thank her and decline the offer because it makes you uncomfortable. You could tell her that or just say as per Pete Clark's answer that it's just not done in academia.

In an analogous but not identical situation: when I a write letter of recommendation for a student I regularly show the student what I have written before submitting it in the traditional sealed envelope (nowadays that's a web form). The student has usually waived the right to see the letter but I have not waived the right to show it to them.

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