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Is it unethical for someone to proofread/edit your cover letter?

Because then it's not fully your work anymore. It could be helpful, but I am asking if it is ethical towards the hiring professional? You wouldn't state that someone improved your work, but you are acting as if it is all yours.

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    No, absolutely not. It is always helpful to have comments, suggestions, and corrections from somebody else. If you believe that it is unethical, than most journal articles aren't fully the authors' work anymore, since (good) journals will do some level of proofing and editing. – Jon Custer Jul 14 '16 at 16:13
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    Is there some expectation in Academia that a CV is the person's own work? Certainly the work outlined within the CV needs to be the person's own work, but the CV itself? Is there any ethics violation if the entire thing was written by someone else? – Johnny Jul 14 '16 at 19:29
  • Sorry for the confusion, I primarily meant a cover letter in terms of wording and style. See the response I gave to Pete L. Clark below. – M. Haster Jul 14 '16 at 19:47
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    Just make sure you can actually remember what the "edited and improved" version actually says. If you get as far as an interview, it might be embarrassing if you can't. (Believe it or not, in industry sometimes applicants don't "remember" things in their application that may not have been precisely "the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth"). – alephzero Jul 15 '16 at 0:32
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    Just to add, the content of the cover letter is still completely your decision. Your choice to accept or reject suggestions by others is completely yours. I've accepted suggestions from colleagues in regards to my CV, but I've also rejected some. – Charles Jul 15 '16 at 3:25
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I see no ethical problems with this whatsoever.

One has to understand most academic ethical principles through the lens of academic society. In particular the belief that academic writing should be solely that of the author unless otherwise scrupulously documented is not an absolute ethical principle but a belief and expectation of practicing academics throughout the world. It applies to certain kinds of writing and not others (and there are edge cases that cause disagreement, as seen on this site).

I don't know any academics who view a CV as a piece of academic writing in the sense that issues of originality and plagiarism apply. If you like the format of someone else's CV, you can copy it for yourself. In fact, it is more efficient if you just ask them for the word / latex / whatever file they used to make their CV and adapt it directly. I imagine most academic CVs are adapted in this way.

Cover letters are viewed differently by different parts of academia. In my circles (mathematics, research university, US) cover letters are usually quite perfunctory: within recent memory my colleagues and I discussed whether we even wanted to make a cover letter an official part of the job application. In my field there is something called an "AMS Cover Sheet," which is a sort of form that you fill out that has the information of a cover letter, and some departments would happily accept this in lieu of a conventional cover letter. Using an AMS Cover Sheet as a cover letter is the equivalent of adapting someone else's CV. However, it is my understanding that in some other parts of US academia -- especially in liberal arts colleges and/or the humanities -- the cover letter is extremely important (I have heard someone say it is the most important part of the application). If what you say to convince a hiring committee that you are a good fit for their institution is lifted from someone else's cover letter, then indeed that might be viewed as problematic.

The above covers the situation of literally cutting and pasting CVs and cover letters. When it comes to proofreading: it is my understanding and view that unless specifically prohibited, getting your academic documents proofread is not only acceptable but usually highly encouraged. When it comes to editing, some amount is probably okay but some amount is probably too much. It also depends on who is doing the editing. My PhD advisor gave me more extensive feedback on my employment materials than on any other single thing. I took the implication that these materials are extremely important, and I have tried to "pay forward" his help by giving similar extensive help to students (including, but not limited to, my thesis advisees) on their employment materials, webpages and so forth. I would not hesitate to circle a sentence and scrawl a suggested alternative in the margins of their draft. I do hesitate (and never have, I believe) retyped any of my students' theses or employment materials: thus I am suggesting changes -- sometimes very specific changes, and sometimes with the clear intent that my suggestion will be implemented directly -- but I am not making the changes myself.

In general I have a hard time envisioning a proofreading or editing of a cover letter or CV that would be ethically problematic. I think students and young academics should be much more concerned with having these and other application materials flawlessly literate and highly polished and should seek to err on the side of getting the help that they need to do so. If such a person has a reason to think that some particular aid they are getting may cross the line, they should ask their advisor.

  • To specify, it is for the specific rewording of a cover letter that I ask this question, since it has occurred that a proofreader would reword a sentence or two, which often sounded more professional, but lost the voice and tonality of my writing. How I wrote it was in essence a standardized version of that sentence. Seeing that the cover letter is highly important in the humanities, in which I am referring to, I would like to showcase the most authentic side of myself, and whether they accept it or not is out of my control. – M. Haster Jul 14 '16 at 19:11
  • I would ask for grammar help if I need it, but since I don’t have an issue with that, I don’t feel like a proofreader would significantly contribute, and shouldn’t contribute, to my writing. Thoughts? – M. Haster Jul 14 '16 at 19:11
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    I encourage you to talk to your advisor to get specific advice. I don't know you, I haven't see the letter, and I don't know the specific norms of your field. However I would have to think that rewording just a few sentences would be unobjectionable. – Pete L. Clark Jul 14 '16 at 19:17
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    @M.Haster I would like to showcase the most authentic side of myself, and whether they accept it or not is out of my control is a terrible misunderstanding of what you should be trying to do in a humanities job cover letter and why it is important. / Would you show up for the job interview dressed to go surfing just to highlight the most authentic side of yourself as well? – virmaior Jul 14 '16 at 23:16
  • Tiny nitpick, but "academic writing i the sense" should probably be "academic writing in the sense". I hope I'm not academically unethical by pointing out this possibility of improvement to your writing. :-) (I would make the edit myself, but I don't have the necessary reputation to do so here.) – a CVn Jul 15 '16 at 13:27
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I'd say that given a single typo is enough to get your resume thrown out, it would be extraordinarily unprofessional NOT to have your work proofread.

That said, after crazy numbers of people had commented on and proofread mine, I realized that I'd had "RDBMS" written as "RMDBS" for about two years. Nobody had caught it :(

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    Yes I see your point! Often times it is very helpful; it just seems that proofreading is so encouraged every time, so I feel as though 'haven't I learned how to check for errors? Why would I need a proofreader every time?' – M. Haster Jul 15 '16 at 15:53
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    @M.Haster Having others proofread is beneficial because you can miss things, though. When we know what we mean to communicate/write, our minds can fill in things we see/read such that we won't realize there's errors. But since only we know what we're aiming to communicate, others can see the mistakes we may not. – spektr Jul 15 '16 at 18:01
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    @M.Haster It's easy to see typos in other's work. if it's your work, you know what should be written there, and often fill it in with your brain instead of what's really on the page. – Ben Webster Jul 16 '16 at 19:39
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I do not believe so. When I was preparing my own CV and cover letter, I received many useful recommedations and one of them was to have a friend or even a professor proofread it. Though I am not a professor or employer, I believe that it is more important to put facts and truth in these documents and avoid equivocations because these two types of documents are used to present you and you want it to be as flawless as possible. For a good reference, please visit the following link:

Resume & Letter Writing - Career Center of Berkeley University

The following link also provides some insights:

Five things to remember when emailing a professor - USA Today

  • Did anyone advise you that in North American English, advice is an uncountable noun? It is "much useful advice" or "many useful recommendations". Using the word in the plural, although idiomatic in other countries, immediately (and often unfairly) tags you in the US and Canada as a non-native English speaker. – Malvolio Jul 16 '16 at 16:16
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The purpose of a CV / Cover Letter is to optimally represent your skills, motivations and interests in order to secure an interview for a particular position. As long as the representation itself is honest, then whether or not you relied upon some assistance to create the document is irrelevant, I think.

I have had experience, though, of recruitment agencies attempting to force proof-reading and editing of my CV upon me. Typically this would be for the purpose of hiding my address from an employer, and placing their own branding on the CV. That, I would argue, is unethical.

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No. I don't believe that it is unethical at all. Having said that there are several different aspects to this, which you may personally find to be a moral grey area.

  1. Proofreading
  2. Editing

In proofreading, if the person is just telling (or writing) a bit of feedback on what you've written with the expectation that you then rewrite your work, then the work is at all times still your work, written by you.

Many institutions, including universities, will offer free proofreading to their students; you should absolutely take advantage of this, if you can.

In editing, there could be a bit of a grey area. If the person actually changes your words, then one could argue that perhaps it's not quite your work anymore. That being said, you don't have to accept any edits made, if you don't feel comfortable.

In either case, the most important things to remember with cover letters and resumes is to be honest and promote your skill-set and accomplishments.

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    Why would editing a cover letter be a problem? – virmaior Jul 14 '16 at 23:17
  • Thats exactly what I was thinking! In regards to your editing comment, I feel the same way. I've had instances where my style and tonality were completely changed. Thats true that I don't have to accept it, and it could improve some necessary aspects, but I just feel less confident when I ask someone to check my work. I think 'do I not feel good enough submitting something if I don't receive some sort of feedback for it'? – M. Haster Jul 15 '16 at 15:49
  • @virmaior The reason something might be a problem is if they add to or change your words. If they add more to your document, then that document isn't only your work, it also has elements of this other persons work. For example if they change "really important" to "critical" then that wasn't your decision, and therefore that change is a reflection of their choices not yours. – Dace Jul 18 '16 at 20:16
  • Why is it a problem if someone adds to or changes the words of your cover letter? It's not a publication, so there's no expectation that it's purely "your work." Clearly, you shouldn't let people make the letter say things you don't think, but that's a different problem than "editing". There's no reason you can't accept edits. – virmaior Jul 18 '16 at 22:43
  • @virmaior I have been taught that the cover letter itself is at the very least a reflection of your abilities (or a subset). My understanding is that the cover letter can carry some expectation that it is purely "your work", although obviously not to the same rigor as a publication. For example, in the extreme where someone wrote (or rewrote) your entire cover letter for you, even if everything in the document is truthful, I would consider that unethical because none of it is my work. What Pete said: editing, some amount is probably okay but some amount is probably too much. – Dace Jul 19 '16 at 0:03

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