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My students often request letters of reference from me. Sometimes to attend graduate school in the UK, Germany, Switzerland, and sometimes in countries not internationally known for their education system.

Quite often the student says the university wants them to enclose the letters of recommendation and clearly some universities do not want the student to be involved in that communication process.

My question is, how do I know when I am writing a letter to a specific university if they prefer the student to submit the letter or if they prefer me to communicate directly with the school? I could check with each school as I write the letter but that seems like a lot of work which need not be repeated for each letter-writer.

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    I may be missing something, but why do you care? If the student asks you to submit directly, submit directly. If the student asks you to send him the letter, send him the letter. – xLeitix Jul 28 '14 at 11:27
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    @xLeitix I care because there may be some schools which accept either method and for those schools I would prefer to send directly, bypassing the student's eyes altogether. As it is now, I have students comparing their letters to those I have written for other students and I would like to avoid that whenever possible. – earthling Jul 28 '14 at 13:15
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    @xLeitix: I agree with earthling. By not having to give the letter of recommendation directly to the student, I can write a more useful letter. (When letters are public, they are more prone to be "safe.") That's why, as a rule, I always ask for a direct address to send the letter, if possible. – aeismail Jul 28 '14 at 14:22
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    I may be missing something, but why do you care? If the student asks you to submit directly, submit directly. If the student asks you to send him the letter, refuse and submit directly. – JeffE Aug 3 '14 at 22:00
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    @JeffE Some misguided application systems automatically reject applications if the letter is not provided by the student. Presumably this is to reduce effort required to administer letters. – Anonymous Physicist Feb 12 at 21:19
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Well, many good answers are already included in the comment section, but Let my try to summarize and extend this a bit:

First of all, there are good reasons for not involving the student (you can be more honest, the student can not pre-select). To my knowledge, ther eare at least three different submission types:

  1. Student sends in recommendation which is written openly
  2. Students has to submit letter of recommendation, but it must be enclosed in a sealed envelope
  3. letter of recommendation has to be sent directly.

The chosen method might not only depend on the institution, but also on the funding scheme if the student gets financial support. The sheer number of possible combinations, combined with funding schemes which might vary from year to year makes the existence of a complete list extremely unlikely.

I would suggest to follow the advice given by Stephan Kolassa to let the student figure out how the process works. It might be good to tell the student that if there are several options, you would prefer to send in the letter directly.

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  • Note that the sealed envelope method is a pain if the prof does not have a secretary. Make sure to ask the student to ask for the whole number of required recommendations ahead of time rather them trickling in over time. – Captain Emacs Feb 13 at 9:46
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Adding a bit to this, for Japanese universities, almost all expect the letter to be open and included in the applications materials sent by the applicant (my experience here is for jobs -- not graduate school), then recommendation letters are submitted by the applicant in their package.

I gather this is also common in China. As an American, I find it bizarre, but it is what it is.

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  • Does this also apply to asian campuses of western universities? – Anonymous Physicist Feb 12 at 21:25
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What you are asking for is impossible because Academia varies. Letter-collecting practices can vary between departments, degree programs, and supervisors. They can also change over time.

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