It seems that US universities usually provide a link to the professor of the applicant, and let him/her directly upload the recommendation letter to that link, meaning that the student would have no access to it. However, when applying to Masters programs offered by German universities, I am surprised to see that they all ask the student to upload the recommendation letter in PDF format/to a text area directly, by his/her own, which seems to make little sense to me.

I'm afraid that some professors will just outright reject writing a letter which is to be handed to and viewed by the student. Or are such worries unnecessary? Is this a cultural difference between continental European and British/American system (My current university mostly follows the British/American system)? What should I do in this case. Should I ask the professors to write and hand me recommendation letters directly, or should I try to communicate with the university and let the professors email them the letter/give me a physical letter sealed within an envelop, which I will send to the university by mail later on?

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    I think you are asking several different questions at a time. The title asks whether the system you are seeing in Germany as such can work, whereas in the body, you bring up other (basically independent) questions such as whether professors used to a different system will go along with the German system, and also, how to bridge a possible gap between followers of the British/American system and institutions using the German system. These might be more answerable as separate Academia SE questions. Commented Jun 16, 2016 at 18:25
  • Also, you may want to indicate an aproximate field. This might give an impression of whether you are talking about a usually very crowded or a very lonely field (in terms of student numbers), which in turn influences whether it is realistic to expect Bachelor students to ever have talked to a Professor (or anyone else who could write/sign a really "strong" letter). Without that expectation, it is not clear whether the recommendation letter is a crucial part of the application or a "relatively insignificant bonus". Commented Jun 16, 2016 at 18:57
  • @O.R.Mapper The point is that I'm currently studying under a system more similar to US/UK system, and I'll ask for recommendation letters from professors in my current university obviously, but I'm applying to German universities, thus I'm quite confused. And I might have some explanations to do to my professors if they're to write an open letter.
    – xji
    Commented Jun 21, 2016 at 2:40
  • Sure, I got that. But, say, while I considered answering the part about different traditions (similarly to what Massimo has written in the meantime), I had no idea whether professors from letter-writing cultures would reject requests for open letters. If it helps your explanations, documents (e.g. high school graduation certificates, university transcripts, ...) are almost always expected to be handled by the student in Germany, institutions rarely directly get in touch with one another. Commented Jun 21, 2016 at 6:01

3 Answers 3


Is this a cultural difference between continental European and British/American system

I cannot surely speak for all continental Europe, not even for a small portion of it and not for all fields, but speaking with a few European colleagues of mine, it appears that the expectations that we have on recommendation letters are completely different from the typical US expectations.

In particular:

  1. We mostly consider recommendation letters as a mean to discriminate between those that are not able to provide any recommendation letter and those that can provide at least a couple. That is, we expect most of the people not to be able to get one (in a distant past, I wouldn't have considered one who just attended one or two classes with me eligible for a recommendation letter).
  2. We don't expect recommendation letters to be more than one page long, and half a page is ok (you just have to tell me that you had worked with this person and that they are not that bad).
  3. We don't expect the recommendation letters to be sent directly from the reference to the application board.
  4. We consider the writing of recommendation letters as a favour to the applicant, and not as a duty of our profession.

Actually, all the recommendation letters I wrote but one were handed directly to the student (or former student). For the exception, I've received a direct request from a university to submit the recommendation through their online system: the uploading procedure, with questions to answer too, was such a hassle that I've decided that in the future I will probably decline any request for recommendation letters to be uploaded anywhere.

To answer your main question:

Should I ask the professors to write and hand me recommendation letters directly, or should I try to communicate with the university and let the professors email them the letter/give me a physical letter sealed within an envelop, which I will send to the university by mail later on?

I understand your reasons, but I'd consider this an odd thing to do. I'd simply ask the student to provide the recommendation letters.

In case the professors were reluctant to hand the letters directly to the student, I'd write an email explaining the different traditions.

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    in the future I will probably decline any request for recommendation letters to be uploaded - For good or ill, this is the norm in many places in the US, and most people I've talked to about this hate the questions at the beginning too (and if one has to create an account). Our attitude is that it's a pain, but it's a disservice to the students to completely avoid these, however often you can just skip the question. One thing you can do is have the student find out if you can just email your letter to someone and not answer the questions.
    – Kimball
    Commented Jun 16, 2016 at 21:26
  • @Kimball Thank you for the suggestion, next time I'll see if it's possible to skip at least a part of the process. Incidentally, that case was not from the US :-) Commented Jun 16, 2016 at 21:38

A sealed letter is always more effective. If I am asked for a letter that goes via a student, I try to give him/her a sealed version if I have time, as this is much more useful and believable.

An open letter tempts to resort to "codes" which may be understood if one is acquainted with the culture; and may be misunderstood by an institution from a different one.

If they want an open letter, well, there's nothing one can do about it (that being said, for myself, I will only agree to write a reference for a student if I believe it improves their chances).

For pdf submission, one possibility of "sealed submission" would be to encrypt it and let the target institution have only the passphrase. Again, if everything goes through the student, that's obviously not an option.

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    one possibility of "sealed submission" would be to encrypt it - Has anyone done this?
    – Kimball
    Commented Jun 17, 2016 at 0:07
  • 1
    I did never encounter this myself. I am not a crypto expert, but I might envisage protocols in which this would permit the receiving institution to ensure the pdf was not read, and the student being confident that his/her reference was submitted. The key might be referee-specific and authenticated separately. Frankly, a dedicated website for deposing the reference sounds easier. I have been asked for this a lot, and there are services for universities or even university clusters. In short, I do not think one does a student a service by an open reference. It only saves referee work. Commented Jun 17, 2016 at 0:34
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    @einpoklum This logic completely eludes me. In Germany, references are notorious for being open - which means that referees resort to legally unassailable codes to indicate a candidate's suitability. This makes it very difficult to give an accurate and precise reference. It can only work if the reference is positive beyond any doubt (and even in these cases, closed references are preferred, because it is more believable that no ever so minor pressure existed to make the reference strong). Your comment just goes to show that it is impossible to write a reference strong beyond any doubt. Commented Jan 30, 2017 at 9:31
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    @einpoklum Because, if you write the honest reference, they can sue you? Yes, we are talking Germany, not the US. The references there (especially in jobs) are open, so the candidate carries them to whoever is the next employer. Commented Jan 30, 2017 at 10:18
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    @CaptainEmacs I am from Germany and in Germany and I have never heard that you cannot refuse a reference. Of course you can, especially if you have no idea what to write in it because you know nothing about the student. There is a thing in the working environment that you cannot give a negative reference, so in the worst case it is just a neutral one confirming the fact an employee worked for you (which of course makes any neutral reference "sound negative"), but I don't know how much this applies to academic references.
    – skymningen
    Commented Jan 30, 2017 at 13:09

Why, of course a recommendation letter should be readable by the student - and before you've sent it anywhere; or you just hand it to her/him. It's the other way around that doesn't make sense: Why should the person whom you're recommending not be aware of what you're going saying about her/him? That seems to be mostly an opportunity to "backstab" a person by "anti-recommending" them in the letter.

  • Although it would not be professional to "backstab" a person in the manner you describe, there's a big difference between writing a "candidate is acceptable" letter and a "candidate is outstanding" letter. Writing the former is made more difficult if the candidate has the opportunity to read it.
    – RJFalconer
    Commented Jan 30, 2017 at 16:28
  • @RJFalconer: Well, it should be difficult. If you think the candidate is only acceptable you have to talk to her/him and explain why your recommendation would not be stellar; or, alternatively, decline. At any rate, that's not a good enough reason to not allow the student to decide whether to use your letter without reading it first.
    – einpoklum
    Commented Jan 30, 2017 at 16:48
  • It's not an opportunity to backstab the student, but rather to make very direct comparisons with other students, which should of course remain confidential. I've seen recommendation letters for U.S. PhD programs that go as specific as saying "my university has sent students A, B, C, D, E to your program in the last 3 years; this student is stronger than C, D, E and weaker than A, B." I am not a fan of this practice but it certainly is useful information. If a professor can't write a good letter, and they are mature, they should reject to write it rather than try to backstab the student. Commented Jan 12, 2022 at 18:45
  • "which should of course remain confidential" - surely, you mean "must not, of course, be confidential".
    – einpoklum
    Commented Jan 12, 2022 at 20:08

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