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I hope this isn't a silly question, but I was wondering how acceptable it'd be to copy and paste a certain structure and some particular sentences in letters of recommendation.

Of course, I'm not thinking of copying and pasting anything very specific about the candidate, but there are certain traits that are shared among students and I also have a certain structure that I like and ties nicely with particular sentences (e.g., when talking about the student as being collegial, responsible, always meeting deadlines etc.). I'm not good with words so the truth is that the more I can reuse the phrases that I like, the faster I can write it and the quality of the text will likely be better as well.

Would this be flagged by some review software? If it is, would one regard it as unethical to reuse stretches of previous letters? I should clarify that all the particular strengths, projects etc. of the student won't be copied and pasted, just sentences about general traits and so forth, or greetings, paragraph transitions, all the repetitive stuff. I guess my real question is: is it ok to use a standard template and just make the required adjustments? Or do I need to keep rephrasing the same points?

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    Often, questions of ethics can be viewed through the prism of The Golden Rule. Is your recommendation real, or is it pro forma, not wishing to go to too much effort... How would you feel about being on the receiving end of such treatment in a matter as important as the success or failure of your career aspirations?
    – Fe2O3
    Commented Apr 30 at 21:52
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    At one point I was on a master's admission committee at a specific state school which always got applications from the various smaller state schools. One professor at a very tiny school kept sending nearly identical recommendation letters to us for students each year. It did not help the students very much. And it especially did not when part of their boilerplate language was the same extreme praise.
    – JoshuaZ
    Commented Apr 30 at 23:07

4 Answers 4

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Using a template is totally fine. I do that, as does every professor I know. In fact, I shared a chunk of my template in an answer to another question. A lot of those sentences get reused in letters I write, and tailored to the individual person. It's usually a good idea to start with a letter you wrote for a similar student applying to similar things (e.g., PhD programs vs REUs).

Would this be flagged by some review software?

There is no review software designed to prevent this practice, because it's so widespread.

If it is, would one regard it as unethical to reuse stretches of previous letters?

It's not unethical.

I guess my real question is: is it ok to use a standard template and just make the required adjustments? Or do I need to keep rephrasing the same points?

It's fine to use a template and make the required adjustments. There are more important things to spend your time on than writing every letter of recommendation from scratch!

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    "Share a chunk at [link]... A lot of those sentences get reused in letters [others] write"... Hmm... Seems like a case of "Great idea; potentially lousy outcomes for the student." Just my opinion...
    – Fe2O3
    Commented Apr 30 at 21:41
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    "There are more important things to spend your time on..." BE-E-E-E-E-P!! ... Sorry... Reading those words in a post to a "social media" website kinda triggered my BS Detector. From your perspective, do you consider that writing posts such as this one may be more important than other things you could be doing with your time?
    – Fe2O3
    Commented May 1 at 4:41
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    @Fe2O3 It's hard to imagine a less useful activity than wordsmithing a letter of recommendation so that no words/sentences in it have ever appeared in another LOR I've ever written. I've written around 100 in my life. There's only so many ways to say "Student X took course Y with me and was a top student..." Certainly I think sharing my experience and advice with people here is more useful than such wordsmithing. Commented May 1 at 11:13
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    What is a good use of time is to write about the specific project student X did, why it was impressive, and why it shows they will be successful in grad school. And I do that. But, having a template for the standard stuff means I can write a letter of recommendation in 1 hour instead of 4 hours if I was writing it entirely from scratch. Commented May 1 at 11:30
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    @Fe2O3 It's not fluff. If it's missing it says a lot. Commented May 2 at 8:52
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Generic and boilerplate text has the property that it comes across as, well, generic and boilerplate. For this reason, an effective letter of recommendation will contain descriptions of an individual that are specific to that person. People simply do not find generic praise compelling or persuasive. So if you want to make your description of someone as collegial or responsible convincing, it's pretty essential to give some specific details of actual behavior that gave you that positive impression. That's what I try to do when writing letters of recommendation; it's basically the show, don't tell principle of writing.

Coming back to your question: if your letter conforms to the principle of containing a good amount of details specific to the person you are writing about, but also contains some boilerplate/copied-and-pasted language, I think that's fine. But if your idea was that through reusing content from past letters you could escape the need to formulate a coherent description of a specific individual and why they need to be hired/admitted/given a fellowship/etc, I think that's a very misguided idea, as a letter without those kinds of details will simply be completely ineffective and won't provide any benefit for the student's applications. Whether it's ethical to write such a letter becomes the question of whether it's ethical to write a useless letter, knowing that it's useless. I think the answer is pretty clear.

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On the one hand, you're copying from yourself, so there's no issue of plagiarism or copyright violation or anything like that. I don't see any legal or ethical issue.

I don't know if job recruiters use plagiarism detection software. Would they do some sort of automated review that would spot the repetition? I don't know. I'd guess not. No one is concerned about plagiarism in a letter of recommendation. Even if it was true that someone copied a letter of recommendation off the Internet and then edited it up, so what? The HR department isn't grading the letter of recommendation for originality. They're evaluating the job candidate.

What WOULD concern me is if the HR department got two letters from you for two different students and noticed they were almost identical. At that point they might conclude you weren't really writing about the individual student but just had a stock letter of recommendation that you sent out for anyone who asked for it.

If the template part is truly only the most generic stuff, "I am a professor at Foobar College and ____________ asked me for a letter of recommendation" or some such, I doubt anyone would worry about it. But if you had standard phrases that you used for every student, "_______ is very hard-working and intelligent", etc, that might make an HR person think that you really didn't put any thought into this.

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As a researcher, do you want to go through many papers, day-after-day, all with lengthy abstracts full of generic, predictable, sugary platitudes, wondering if the author is actually contributing anything substantial?

Picture yourself as the recipient of a bloated, "recognisably boilerplate" LOR. You wouldn't fault yourself for tossing it in the "too hard" pile after only a cursory glance. As another user wrote, "I've got better things to do with my time." (Most of us do!)

With zero experience in the role of assessing these things, I would give far more credence to the LOR that succintly states:

Your time is valuable; so is mine. You're correct in taking as given that I am sincere in recommending Student X because I feel s/he would be an asset to your department.

The reasons I have come to this judgement are:

...and then focus on your interactions with the applicant, only.

Presume the reader has already seen, used-and-abused, every superlative found in a thick thesaurus many, many times. These two introductory statements are more likely to inspire the reader's thirst to discover what might be in the rich, dense and compact treasure trove that follows.

Your role, penning an LOR, is to generate curiosity and excitement; not to write YET ANOTHER another verbose, sugary sedative.

And, the "commodity" being promoted (Student X) may well be more grateful for your no-nonsense coverage of important, relevant points.

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    You're pretty opinionated for someone with "zero experience in the role of assessing these things." You suggested in your last comment to me (below my answer) that you think my approach is bad for students. Perhaps it will put your mind at ease if I mention that it has NEVER happened (in around 100 letters) that the student didn't get into grad school, or internship, or whatever thing they were applying for. Letter writing takes a long time because I write them well. But, being at a small university, it provides helpful context to the reader if I describe my university, course structure, ... Commented May 2 at 11:12
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    ...strength of our student population (so the reader understands the comparison group if I write that the student is in the top 10% I've ever taught), which textbook I used, the fact that my assignments were based on similar courses I took at the well-known BSM program in math, etc. It's context, not fluff. Putting that context into every letter helps both the student and the reader. Writing every letter from scratch would not make them better. I don't plan to keep engaging with you back and forth forever. Commented May 2 at 11:12
  • @DavidWhite Me? "Opinionated"? You got that in one!! For good reasons, my sympathies lie with "the commodity" and how it is marketed. Further, I agree; let's both "agree to disagree" and get on with life.
    – Fe2O3
    Commented May 2 at 12:05

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