In this question, it seems that most people think it is acceptable for candidates to see their references. I find this very strange, as in the vast majority of case I have come across it is expected or required that all references are confidential.

What is the point of having a reference that the candidate is able to see?

The person reading such a reference has no way of telling whether any praise is genuine or simply included to please the candidate. Likewise, the chances of negative points being included are minimal, even if they are very important. Thus the reference becomes little more than a vague sign of support. I understand that in business that is generally sufficient, but in my experience academic references are relied on much more heavily to discriminate between candidates.

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    Other answers on this site have suggested there are significant cultural differences around the world in how letters work. In the US, letters a major determining factor for employers / admission committees. In some other parts of the world, they are not; and in some cases they are only expected to be a pro forma "Yes this person did work here" sort of thing. The difference could be correlated with whether or not letters are confidential. Sep 5, 2016 at 14:00
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    @NateEldredge About the cultural difference, one thing that neither me nor my other colleagues understand is why one's chances of being hired should depend on someone else's capacity for writing good recommendation letters. Sep 5, 2016 at 14:35
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    I would actually ask the opposite question: "what is the point of a fully confidential reference letter?" because I am genuinely curious to understand why on Earth is that important to hide your opinions about someone once you agreed to be a reference.
    – gented
    Sep 5, 2016 at 16:19
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    @GennaroTedesco The most significant argument in favor of confidential letters is that they allow direct comparisons with other students/faculty. I can understand the view that I should be open with you about my opinion of you; it's harder to argue that I should be open with you about my opinion of someone else.
    – JeffE
    Sep 5, 2016 at 16:50
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    @MassimoOrtolano I write several letters for undergraduates applying to graduate school, PhDs applying for academic jobs, and current faculty applying for tenure, every year. The undergraduates are all from my department; they typically know each other and (more importantly) students I have worked with recently. My letters usually include direct comparisons with those former students. ("This student reminds me of X, who is now in the PhD program at MIT and just published their third Annals paper.") (1/2)
    – JeffE
    Sep 5, 2016 at 19:20

2 Answers 2


From the perspective of UK higher education, the 'point' of a non-confidential reference letter is that there is no such thing as a confidential one; any data held on that student (such as references) can be disclosed by the institution holding it.

How does the old saying go? Dance like no-one's watching, writing an email like it's being read aloud in a deposition.

References are a tricky grey area, and I do preach caution in case a student ends up seeing what you have written - which can be embarrassing, or even libelous if you can't prove statements that purport to be truth.

I do not think that this undermines the referencing process, however; if you can make true statements about a candidate, including your opinions about them, then, in my opinion, you are within your right to do so. After all, your student has asked you to do this.

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    Well, the US has a similar disclosure law for student records, but we work around it. When a student first applies to an institution (before letters are submitted), they are given the option to waive their legal right to see their letters. Then the reference writer is told (usually by the institution) whether or not the student has chosen the waiver. If the student didn't choose the waiver, the writer can decline to submit a letter at all. So in practice, letters are confidential after all. Is this not possible under UK law? Sep 5, 2016 at 14:04
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    The thing about using the DPA to see your references is that there is nothing stopping the institution you are making the request against from telling the author of the reference that you've done it. I suspect anyone pulling this trick would find it hard to get anyone to write a reference for them in the future.
    – MJeffryes
    Sep 5, 2016 at 14:26
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    @NateEldredge No, it is not possible to waive your rights under data protection act.
    – MJeffryes
    Sep 5, 2016 at 14:27
  • @MJeffryes if I'm not mistaken the thing stopping them telling the referee that a request to see the reference has been made would be... the Data Protection Act.
    – Deleuze
    Sep 5, 2016 at 14:30
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    I don't see it as a problem that the receiver of a reference can release its contents, because they are the ones interested in knowing that they have not been released. If they want the reference to stay confidential, they can do so.
    – Jessica B
    Sep 5, 2016 at 15:21

Regarding the point of non-confidentiality eliminating negative comments: even when references are confidential, from the reference writer's perspective, if one can't write a positive letter one shouldn't agree to write a letter at all.

What can possibly be the point of a confidential negative reference letter besides career sabotage?

The other part of it is that it's useful for the candidate to see the letter to have a better sense of what impression they leave on the people they work with/for.

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