This question is, honestly speaking, probably somewhat opinion-based, but I still want to give a shot.

A professor acceded to my invitation of writing a reference letter for me. Nevertheless, unlike the other professors who also acceded to write a reference letter for me, he asked me to draft it on my own. Originally I did not feel anything "wrong", and I just felt embarrassed to recommend myself. But yesterday a friend told me that a professor would ask you to write her reference letter for you when she does not actually think that you are "worthy" enough for her to write you one on her own.

What is the probability that such viewpoint is true? Any opinion is greatly appreciated!

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    @JukkaSuomela that question is asking "is it ethical", this question is asking "what does it mean". I think they are related, but not duplicate. – StrongBad Sep 26 '14 at 16:58
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    With all due respect to your friend, I think they're very wrong and I highly recommend that you don't take their advice/point of view on the mater. By saying what they said, your friend sound like that child in primary school who ran around and told us that you can get pregnant by kissing somebody. Personally, I'd think less of somebody (intellectually) if they believe such things. – Adi Sep 27 '14 at 6:13
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    @Adnan That's uncalled for (and starting with "with all due respect) does not make your comment less insulting. – xLeitix Sep 27 '14 at 7:32
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    @BobJarvis: Your story does not take place in an academic context. This OP is speaking about letters for graduate school. In this context leaving the student to write their own letter is doing them no favors. – Pete L. Clark Sep 30 '14 at 11:24
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    To risk an analogy: it is as if you want to start a modelling career, you go to a professional photographer for a headshot, and he says: "Why don't you take the picture yourself, give me the film, and I'll touch it up in the darkroom if that turns out to be necessary. I want you to make yourself look good!" Simply writing that the OP is really effing good is not what is called for. Professional familiarity with academia and letter writing skills are called for. – Pete L. Clark Sep 30 '14 at 11:24
up vote 90 down vote accepted

For me, it means two things:

  • I am really busy
  • I don't know anything about the job you're applying to and what you want to emphasize about yourself

If the first draft you write is something I can't sign, I'll edit it or I won't sign it. If it's not braggy enough, I might add some emphasis. But metaphorically handing me a piece of blank paper and asking me to recommend you is actually asking me to put in quite a lot of work. Do these people you're applying to value initiative? Creativity? Willingness to work long hard hours? Cheerfullness? A driven nature? A gentle spirit? Is the fact you write great software relevant to them? How about your careful bench work? For all I know you want to do less of one thing and more of another. So now I need to ask you a zillion questions about what you want to emphasize, and maybe go research the job too, and then ask you if what I've written is ok - frankly, it's way easier to ask you to write the first draft. And some days, I take the easy route.

It does not mean:

  • I intend to sign words I didn't write. I will write the final draft
  • It's ok for you to make up strengths you don't have
  • You'll know what I send in the end
  • I can't write a simple letter without help from a student.

Your first draft doesn't even have to be a letter, it can be point form. But tell me you're choosing me as a reference so I can confirm your amazing Xness, Yabilty and Zation. If I can, I will.

By the way, I wish I could find the idiot who started the theory that it means I don't think well of you and want you to retract your request. Several students have retracted their requests after I asked for a first draft, and that's a shame, because I would have cheerfully signed a glowing recommendation for them. I just didn't have time to write it all from scratch myself.

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    Hurrah! While I don't ask students to write draft letters, I do ask them to send me an email detailing why they're particularly qualified for the school or position for which I'm writing a recommendation. Almost half of them never "get around" to doing that. Rather than being disappointed, I consider that I've just learned something about the student that might have influenced my recommendation. For those who may care, here is what I tell students: bbrown.spsu.edu/recommendations/index.html – Bob Brown Sep 26 '14 at 17:43
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    +1 for "what you want to emphasize about yourself" for the particular position you're applying for. – mhwombat Sep 26 '14 at 17:45
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    -1 for suggesting that there is nothing wrong with asking the student to write the first draft. – Tobias Kildetoft Sep 26 '14 at 18:06
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    @TobiasKildetoft there is nothing wrong with asking the student to write the first draft - and it's just as okay to simply refuse to write any letter because you don't have the time for it. Unless you have a close collaboration relationship, you don't owe a letter-writing service to everyone who happened to be in a class you taught. – Peteris Sep 26 '14 at 20:26
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    To me, Bob's approach seems much more ethical than actually asking the student to write a draft of the letter, while still accomplishing the goal of the referrer knowing what the student is applying for (and, thus, what relevant information should be included.) – reirab Sep 26 '14 at 20:27

At this point I feel I should leave an answer which records a differing opinion.

First, let me provide context. My advice is for students applying the STEM PhD programs in the United States (like the OP). I was admitted to the top three math PhD programs in the United States and graduated from one of them in 2003. Since 2006 I have been tenured-track at UGA; I am now a tenured associate professor. I spent four years on the Graduate Committee reading applications, and though I am now on a different committee, because I am co-PI on a large NSF grant I read a stack of applications last year and will probably continue to do so for several years to come. I have also read thousands of academic recommendation letters for faculty positions. (This is, unfortunately for me, not an exaggeration.)

The accepted answer gives what I think is not good advice for the OP's situation. I think it might be good advice for non-academic recommendation letters, and I suspect that it was in fact not written to be targeted at PhD applications. Going over the entire answer point-by-point feels unnecessarily confrontational, but let me differ in some key points, all of which I think could lead a student astray.

  • Most of the best recommendation letters for STEM PhD programs in the US are written by those who have substantial experience in this area. In my field of mathematics, a letter written by someone who does not have a PhD in mathematics or a closely related field is likely to be simply skipped over. (I have learned on this site that in some other STEM fields, good letters can be written by those who have substantial industrial experience. But such people still have to have a lot of experience with PhDs in the relevant fields.) The best letters are written by those who have faculty experience as well, have seen many academic recommendation letters, and who are known by the faculty doing admissions, at least by reputation.

Is this description somewhat elitist and exclusionary of younger, non-tenure track and liberal arts faculty? Yes, it is. But it is also honest. If we get a letter from a small liberal arts college that says "Ms. X is the best student I have ever seen" and then doesn't display a familiarity with the type of students that succeed in programs like ours, it's hard to know what to make of it. If the recommender is not an active researcher: well, that's just not as good as someone whose name we all know and trust. How could it be?

In a comment it was suggested that the above situation is impossible because everyone starts out with less experience than the above. Most letters we get are not written by people who are just starting out. If you spend a few years in a faculty position you'll see a deluge of academic recommendation letters and absorb the format. If you are a very junior person who is nevertheless a good choice to write a letter (which certainly does happen), you should get help and advice from someone more experienced. You should not rely on someone who is much less experienced, and still less on an undergraduate, and yet less on that undergraduate for whom you are writing.

  • Any reasonably good letter contains components that almost no student could write. For instance such letters should include information about the credentials and experience of the writer, enough to explain why their endorsement of the student is to be relied upon. Such letters should compare the student generally to other students in the recommender's program, to the generic student in the target PhD program, and ideally to past specific students that the writer and the reader will both know. Even the one in a million student who has preternatural access to this information cannot give it: it has to come from writer, in the writer's voice.

There is plenty of room in such an application for a student to provide information about her strengths, goals and interests. A good faculty letter makes contact with that student information and reinforces it, but such information does not form nearly enough of a letter for it to make sense for a student to write it up as though it could be the basis of the faculty letter: at best, doing this would waste everyone's time, not save it.

  • Writing academic letters is not a "favor": it is part of what faculty are paid to do. More precisely, it is part of what permanent, full-time faculty are paid to do. I've spent about eight hours over the last few days writing letters for current and former UGA math department personnel, and I will spend at least that much time on the task in the next few weeks. I spend so much time on these tasks because (i) it's important -- the difference between an effective letter and ineffective one may play out as a difference in some young person's life; and (ii) I have a stake in it as well: when one of our undergraduates goes to a top ten PhD program or one of our PhD students gets an NSF postdoc, my entire department benefits and in so doing I benefit. If I were a temporary, adjunct or part-time faculty member, I strongly suspect that I would not feel the same way, and I certainly would not expect such a faculty member to devote such time and effort. Someone who thinks of recommendation letters as a favor is someone you don't want to write for you and, I feel, someone who shouldn't have to. Also, no one is required to write a letter for any given student: if you feel like you can't write an effective letter, say so and don't do it.

  • A letter which is written first by a student and then touched up by the faculty signee is a potentially serious academic honesty situation. I have spoken about this at length elsewhere on this site. I respect that some others do not feel this way and that in many situations there is nothing immoral or suboptimal going on here. However you need to know that many -- I suspect most -- American academics share my qualms. Even the fact that the student must not see the letter is regarded as sacrosanct by many. I am very dismayed when people try to say that they are not really just signing their students' letters -- or only if they "actually endorse everything that is written"!! -- but are just getting this writing sample as step one of a final product that is not in any way problematic. To that I say: if you know how to write a reasonable specimen of an academic letter you will know that a "student draft" is at best helpful only as a source of information about the student, so what is being gained by not just asking for the information outside of a letter format? By soliciting a student draft you are inviting the student to be complicit in a possible academic dishonesty whose final outcome is unknown to them. If later in their graduate career it comes up that they think they wrote their own letter it could still go or at least look very badly for them, even if it turns out that nothing so terrible actually transpired. Then there are the deceptive habits you are implicitly conveying to the student as being part of normal academic business. If you don't think you are teaching the student to be deceptive, ask yourself this: would you be willing to submit a letter that was signed jointly by you and the student, or even in which it is explicitly mentioned that it was written based on an early draft of the student? If you are not willing to put that in the letter, then yes, you are being unethically deceptive and encouraging the student to do the same. If on the other hand you are willing to put that in the letter: please try it, and see what happens. I think you'll get some interesting feedback.

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    Thank you for writing this answer. I was considering writing something along these lines, but I was hoping you would come along and do it instead, as you are better positioned to write it (and to write it better than I could have). – Tobias Kildetoft Sep 30 '14 at 18:35
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    While I agree with everything in your post I don't believe the effectiveness of the letter and the ethics of this practice were part of OPs question. He asked whether being asked to draft his own recommendation letter meant that the professor cared less or didn't want him to succeed. Which is why I said it probably wasn't the case because they have more direct ways to get in your way than ask you to draft your own letter. The accepted answer agrees with my statement, but goes on further to say that they engage in that practice. Now if you believe that is unethical, I agree, but it's off topic. – Salim Oct 1 '14 at 1:18
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    @Salim: When one believes an answer contains inaccurate information, it is reasonable to leave an answer discussing it. This is true on any SE site. It seems especially pertinent on advice-type sites like ours. In this case the gist of my answer -- namely, when someone asks you to write your own letter, whether they think well or ill of you, you would be most unwise to take them up on it -- does not answer the exact question the OP asked, but it is obviously relevant to anyone who is in the OP's situation. (I have no problem with your answer, by the way. No one does: it stands at +7/-0.) – Pete L. Clark Oct 1 '14 at 3:24
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    @user10694: Sorry, I don't believe you asked 90% of the faculty at your institution for letters. But if you want to provide the name of your institution, I can look into the prevalence of the practice there. – Pete L. Clark Oct 9 '15 at 0:28
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    @JackBauer: Something that has the format of a letter and could be signed and sent "if the professor agrees with everything you wrote" is the most problematic kind of draft. In general you should not send along text that evaluates yourself or argues for admitting yourself. It is perfectly fine to send along factual information. Filling out routine factual information in online forms is not inherently unethical, but American admissions officials would still view it with some concern: if you have access to the online form, how do we know you're not filling out other parts of it? – Pete L. Clark Oct 30 '17 at 13:51

One reason that often occurs, is that the person is not familiar with your accomplishments and would need a quick refresher by having you draft the letter, since they are usually supposed to illustrate with examples as they list your qualities. Another reason is that certain scholarship and university applications want these letters to have a specific format and include specific details about your potential as a researcher. Your reference may just be too busy to study up on the requirements.

If they didn't think you were worthy of admission for a PhD program they could just write a letter themselves saying "don't accept this guy, he is a terrible incompetent jerk", without you ever finding out about it, rather than ask you to draft it first.

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    Ah thanks. But is there really possible an adult who acceded to write a reference letter with contents full of derogatory words? – Gary Moore Sep 26 '14 at 16:54
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    Having been on admissions and search committees, negative letters are thankfully rare but they do exist. – RoboKaren Sep 26 '14 at 19:14
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    @Comeseeconquer I heard one "story" to this end: a person (computer science), applied to a PhD position and among other people, asked her supervisor to write a letter. The letters were anonymous, but after she got accepted, her new prof / department told her: "We decided to accept you despite your supervisor's letter" – penelope Oct 1 '14 at 11:59

Could it be the professor wants the student to confirm what they already know about them. It could be the professor is attempting to help the student grow by having them recognize their own achievements. Perhaps the student is not one to assert themselves and this is an attempt to bring out this trait. In an academic environment learning includes learning about yourself as well as content.

It is very common for an advisor to ask his student to write the letter. I have seen that several times. The reasons are that the advisor is generally very busy and that you are generally the person that knows best what should be written for the job that you are applying. Moreover, if you ask several recommendation letters (let say from 3 persons), you can decide what each of them will say and avoid redundancy between the letters if you write them. Of course, the advisor will then read what you wrote and if he don't agree he will modify it.

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