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As discussed previously, having applicants draft their own recommendation letters (or at least provide inputs) seems to be quite a common practice.

However, I have noticed that a few (American) universities require applicants to affirm that they "will not write any portion or have any involvement in [the] drafting, translating, or submission" of their letters.

What is the best way to handle this? In particular: if a professor requests a drafted letter, would it be proper for the student to provide the draft while indicating that the draft should not be used for schools with the above clause?

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This seems to be more of an "aspiration" rather than a rule. There is no enforcement mechanism possible, since it is the professors that submit the letters that control the process. It is probably also counterproductive in the sense that the "top researchers" in the field who would produce the best reference letters are also likely to be the busiest and most likely to ask students for a draft of a letter, or at least a list of accomplishments that might be mentioned.

I can visualize a situation in which a student asks for a letter and the professor says "write a first draft" and the student then says, "but, but, but,..." and the professor says "Just. Do. It.".

I don't want to suggest ignoring such instructions, but other things should be balanced against it. I also don't want to suggest lying about it if asked.

And note that it is the professor who puts their own reputation on the line in any recommendation, no matter how it is created.


Students writing drafts, however, is a different issue than students directly submitting the letters. That can be enforced.

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  • Thank you for the detailed response. Would you say the drafting is sufficient reason to not submit an application? For the specific case in question, I did not see the non-involvement statement until final review, and it's likely too late for alternates. While a draft was applicant-provided, I have no knowledge to what extent it was used. Considering sending a note to the department informing them accordingly or altogether not applying to the place in question.
    – Infinitus
    Dec 30 '21 at 8:14
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My advice would be, if at all possible, to find another referee.

The culture around writing references does indeed seem to vary somewhat, which is precisely why some institutions feel the need to specify a non-involvement clause. This suggests that the institutions in question feel it is important and are making a serious effort to avoid the potential for misunderstandings arising from “cultural differences”.

You say (in a comment to another answer) that “I did not see the non-involvement statement until final review”, but I would be very surprised if the institution’s website had not articulated these expectations around references on the “information for applicants” pages somewhere. So, it is probably your fault.

Another answer suggests that you can probably get away with the candidate-drafted reference, but keep in mind that you would be telling a direct lie on a formal application form about a matter that the institution deems at least somewhat important; if you are ever caught, it could have serious consequences for you, including revocation of an offer or expulsion from the institution.

Finally, I think it is worth saying that the idea of a candidate drafting a reference is quite widely regarded as anathema, so you should be uncomfortable about doing it even if the institution had not asked you to confirm non-involvement. You say that candidate drafting “seems to be quite a common practice”, but is it a practice declared openly? Personally, I have never heard of a referee saying “This reference has been drafted by the candidate, before being edited and approved by me.”.

Practices that are acceptable might include:

  • referee showing the reference to the candidate (after having sent it);
  • referee dictating short character reference (one or two sentences) to a candidate, then signing it;
  • one person (not the candidate) writes reference, but another, more senior one signs it (in some institutions, it is common for the director to sign all references, but to delegate the actual writing of the references to someone else).

And it is quite common for a referee to ask the candidate whether there are any particular aspects to highlight or downplay (but without any actual reference content being exchanged). The reason for this is because the candidate may have a clearer idea of what the institution is seeking.

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