I'm a new professor and am writing my first letters of recommendation. I have an undergrad student that is truly quite good applying to a summer research program at an institution where I have people I know. I don't think these colleagues are on the selection committee of the internship program and would not see my letter of reference and notice it's from me.

Would it be a faux pas to send a personal email to the people I know and make sure they know about my good student applying? Maybe they can help make sure my student's application is noticed in the pile. I can't decide if this is strategic networking of a mentor or pushing nepotism...

Have you done this or encountered this before? What's common? Note this is in the USA in biology field.

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    Whatever you do, if you want to support your student, don't write he's "truly quite good".
    – user151413
    Commented Feb 15, 2022 at 19:49
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    @user151413 In the UK, "quite" has changed meaning over the years to mean "moderately". ("Quite cold" means you should think about putting a coat on, not that you're getting frostbite.) The US has kept the original meaning of "quite" being a synonym for "completely" or "absolutely" though. (Think of ladies in period dramas saying "He is quite the best dancer I have met".) It's easy for both sides to get caught out with this! For the OP who's in the US though, it's not necessarily a bad choice of words.
    – Graham
    Commented Feb 16, 2022 at 13:21
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    Thanks! Haha. I figured this was a cultural difference but did not know that usage in the UK. Good to know...
    – CephBirk
    Commented Feb 16, 2022 at 14:45
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    It's not really nepotism if they're not a relative or close personal friend. Also, you're not giving them the job, you're just recommending them -- it's up to your colleagues whether they do anything with your recommendation.
    – Barmar
    Commented Feb 16, 2022 at 15:11
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    UK person here - we do have the other meaning of "quite" in some contexts, and "truly" is like "very" here, so I don't think "truly quite good" is likely to be misinterpreted unless you emphasised it like "he's truly quite good" (in which case it might look like damning with faint praise because you're drawing attention to the "faintness" of the praise). Also keep in mind that in the UK we have a habit of understatement, so even if a professor said a student is "quite good" that could easily mean the student is very good indeed.
    – kaya3
    Commented Feb 16, 2022 at 17:50

7 Answers 7


TLDR: not a faux pas, if done with appropriate tact and consideration of the ethical issues underlying this situation.

Long answer:

We should distinguish between sending an informal email outside the official LOR channel that says “please look at my student’s application file, it will be worth your time” and sending an email that says “please accept my student as a favor to me”. There is a big ethical difference between those two actions IMO. The latter action is definitely unethical. But the former action can be viewed as ethical when viewed from certain perspectives.

Here’s my analysis of the “please look at this student” email. The issue in the background here is that we all want application processes to be as meritocratic as possible, but at the same time, a true meritocracy can’t actually be achieved when there are so many application files and the people looking at them have so little time to do their work that the end result is that not all applications actually get seriously looked at.

In such an environment, even the mere “benefit” of having one’s application file looked at feels like getting an unfair advantage. And indeed, an application process that doesn’t even look at all applications is definitely unfair, since it seems quite likely that it will miss some worthy candidates (maybe even the best candidate). But to me that unfairness seems intrinsic to the time- and resource-constrained environment in the department running the program, and will exist whether or not you send the informal email asking for your student’s file to be looked at. The only thing that might change is which students end up being the victims of that unfairness. So we have a “trolley problem”-type situation in which your email might divert the department’s attention towards your student (whom you deem very worthy indeed), at the possible cost of “sacrificing” another — statistically, less worthy on average, I’ll assume — applicant whose file won’t get looked at as closely.

Is this action ethical? Well, that depends on your views about trolley problems — these are ethical dilemmas on which people tend to have a broad range of views. But one can reasonably argue that you are simply helping the department use its scarce attention more efficiently, and in this way are helping it get a better admission outcome overall. This is the utilitarian view commonly taken in many trolley-type situations.

To summarize, I personally think sending the email is ethically reasonable and not a faux pas as long as you truly believe in your student being a highly meritorious candidate, and don’t suggest that the decision regarding whether the student is accepted should factor in your personal friendship with the people you’re sending the email to.

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    Excellent answer, I think this covers all aspects in great detail. Commented Feb 15, 2022 at 17:15
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    I think another aspect in favor of sending a nice note, is that other advisors may be taking this step, and IMO you owe it to students you want to succeed to do everything you can to help them compete in the job market. Since you have very little personal control over the system as a whole, and no control over what other people do, I would personally weigh this consideration higher than trying to make "the system" into a meritocracy in an abstract sense. (Assuming that you believe the student really is a good candidate and you aren't abusing personal relationships, as you said).
    – Andrew
    Commented Feb 15, 2022 at 21:34
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    @Andrew: Actually, your point is in line with the notion of desiring fairness. To have fairness, we need to give each candidate a fair share of the attention. If others are on average sending emails to bring attention to their students, you would also have to send emails to make it a fair competition. Obviously, you shouldn't do unethical things, as Dan already mentioned above, but a factual email, why not?
    – user21820
    Commented Feb 16, 2022 at 16:36

I suppose that opinions can differ, but I find it entirely appropriate to send a supporting letter to people you know. You are putting your own reputation on the line, of course.

I've done something similar for a couple of students, though related to graduate admissions. One was excellent in all dimensions except, being an immigrant brought up in a different culture, did rather poorly on standardized exams. The letter was to someone at a top school. His is now a professor in CS at a top school. My letter just caused them to take a second look and they were happy they did.

The other case was sad. I personally recommended another student to a different top school and he was accepted but did terribly. None of us knew at the time that he was dying of AIDS. My own reputation there was in question until we learned the truth of it.

In the US, letters are taken seriously. The committee may only be able to look at official communications and needs to be fair to all applicants. So it isn't a case of "I'd like you to do me a favor, though.". It is more like "There is more to see with this student than you might expect." It can have an effect or not.

How the letter is received and any ethical decisions are up to the recipient and the committee. But sending a supportive letter is fine.

Sending a letter to sabotage a student is another matter entirely, of course.

  • 1
    "There is more to see with this student than you might expect"- couldn't this be conveyed in the formal LOR itself? Commented Feb 15, 2022 at 15:58
  • @AppliedAcademic, yes, and it probably should be.
    – Buffy
    Commented Feb 15, 2022 at 16:04

Given that this is an undergraduate research program, it's totally possible that your friends have absolutely nothing to do with the selection process or the actual running of this research program. A lot of these programs essentially run completely orthogonal to their home institutions (and are more passion projects for the couple of professors actually involved). That being said, there's nothing to lose by sending a letter, and if your friend is not willing to tell their colleagues about your student, then that is OK.


That solely depends on your relationship with the recipient. Send personal emails to people whom you normally would send personal emails to. The field i worked in was quite small and cozy back then - it may have been even some kind of affront not to communicate personally.

Otherwise i would imagine that increasing the email load of some busy person whom you don't know and who maybe even doesn't deal personally with what you sent (i.e. Assistant may forward the letter to the postdoc) it may be inappropriate.


I can't decide if this is strategic networking of a mentor or pushing nepotism...

There's a slight duplicity inherent in the ethics of these questions, namely that we have an exaggerated notion of fairness and still want to tip the scales towards a favorable outcome.

The entire point of networking is to gain some advantage that would not exist by being outside the network. In that sense, strategic networking is already oriented towards some inequity. So is almost every action we do to gain a competitive edge. Nepotism just shifts the inequity from a win-win to a win-lose (candidate-university).

It doesn't seem like there should be any ethical dilemma here. That is to say, sending the email is unfair to all the candidates who don't have an advisor like you, but that isn't your burden to bear. This would be self-evident if we accept that a large number of our daily actions are unfair, and that the exalted notion of fairness is an idealism that we don't live up to.

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    It doesn’t seem like there should be any ethical dilemma here. Can you clarify what you mean by that? Is the answer to OP’s question “yes” or “no”?
    – Dan Romik
    Commented Feb 15, 2022 at 21:40
  • Thanks @DanRomik, made an edit. Commented Feb 16, 2022 at 6:29

I don't think these colleagues are on the selection committee of the internship program

If they are not, then personally I would not send an email to them about the student, not necessarily out of ethical considerations, but because I would expect sending an email to make no difference to the student's outcome.

If I were on such a committee, and a colleague not on the committee approached me to ask that I give different treatment to one applicant whom they know of via a professional contact, I would be inclined to ignore that request completely. I would expect that if their professional contact has anything relevant to say about the applicant, it should be said in their application, especially if the professional contact is the one who wrote the reference letter. So even if your email does result in your contact approaching somebody on the committee about your student, I doubt it will have any consequences for your student.

Now consider it from the contact's perspective. If I got an email from a professional contact asking me to make sure that a committee in my institution gave careful consideration to one particular applicant who is their student, and I was not on that committee, I would respond with a polite email saying something like: "Hello Professor X, hope you're well. I am not a member of the committee so I will not be involved in considering applications; if there is something you left out of your reference letter then you could try contacting the committee to send an updated reference letter. Best wishes to your student." I would not approach anyone on the committee about it.

On the other hand, there is a risk that your contact will think you are asking for some unfair advantage for your student, because an email asking for an unfair advantage looks exactly the same as an email that might be considered a legitimate request. A nepotist would never outright say "please lobby the committee to accept my student", they would write the same email you would plan to write, because that's plausibly deniable and if the contact is on board with it then they will read between the lines. So I am not sure there is a way of wording such an email which, from the recipient's perspective, totally eliminates the idea that you might be asking for nepotism.

Of course, you may know your contact well enough to know they would not think that, in which case there is probably no downside to sending the email, but I would still expect there to be no upside either.


I’d be extremely careful with any email you send. The current environment in the US is hunting for any tiny downfall to make people’s heads roll. If I were you, I’d call the friend ( at work) and recommend directly your student. A short and direct conversation asking to please take a look at his resume and be assured that he/she is great. Nothing in writing.

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