I teach at a U.S. community college, and commonly write letters of recommendation for students applying subsequently to either bachelor's programs or graduate school. I am accustomed to sending such letters directly to the school/program in question. Looking at other Academia SE questions, this seems to be the general practice.

However, once in a while I get a student who says something like, "No, this school requires that I include the recommendation with my application packet; give it directly to me." I may or may not be informed as to the school or program in question. Should I comply with such a request, or decline?

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    Related answer: academia.stackexchange.com/a/71440/20058 Commented Jan 30, 2017 at 4:15
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    Possible things you could do: (1) Put it in a sealed envelope and ask the student not to open it. (2) If you really trust the student but don't want the letter read, just ask the student not to read it. (3) Somehow mention without suggesting the student may be lying (if possible and applicable) that it's more difficult to write a good, candid letter if the student may someday read it.
    – user541686
    Commented Jan 30, 2017 at 6:44
  • In brief, in the U.S., for top-200 colleges and universities, the student's claimed requirement is entirely false, so far as I know. All (to my knowledge) top-whatever-number U.S. grad schools (for sure) do not want the students to have had any possibility of tampering... and the LOR is submitted electronically, not physically, in any case. So the student either grossly misunderstands or is lying. (Sorry to be negative-sounding, but something's amiss...) Commented Jan 31, 2017 at 2:00
  • @paulgarrett It can be a non-US school. Commented Jan 31, 2017 at 5:06
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    @paulgarrett For obvious reasons, some students are going to seek enrollment outside the top-X grad schools, for any X less than the total number of grad schools. Commented Jan 31, 2017 at 7:19

9 Answers 9


In general, this is a generous thing to do, if you are comfortable with the student. I would make sure to ask what school/program it is being sent to, and then you can double check (and decline if it's fishy). You can ask this question without acting suspicious, just say you want to tailor the letter for the position.

I have had to include my letters for a few postdoctoral positions I applied for (in Italy and Croatia), and I cannot be more grateful for the fact that I had some senior researchers who were willing to send the letter directly to me so I could include it with my application materials.

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    I like this answer. I would add: To ask what program it is, you can start out by saying yes, you'd be happy to, and then explain that you only write recommendations when you know what program the person is applying to. If you state it matter of factly, and then don't budge if questioned, that in itself could be a litmus test as to whether there is anything fishy in the situation. Commented Jan 30, 2017 at 4:42
  • As a student, it is nice to read what your recommenders think about you, too, even if you know it is somewhat fluffed up for the purpose of a recommendation you know that it'd only be fluffed up if the writer actually felt you were a good candidate for whatever you are applying for.
    – enderland
    Commented Jan 30, 2017 at 23:30

I've never heard of it being a requirement, but sometimes it is recommended that you include all application materials as one packet. For instance, once when I was applying for a travel grant, it was highly recommended that all materials be put together so that everything arrived on time. However, they required that the letter was on official letterhead and that it was sealed in an envelope and signed across the the seal by the teacher giving the recommendation. This ensured that it was indeed an original copy and not tampered with.


I'd check the web site of the school in question. In the absence of an answer, write to the registrar. If all else fails, decline, because I believe (without much evidence other than my own feelings) that schools give less weight to recommendations not confidential from the student.


The few recommendation letters from my previous supervisor that I actually was able to read (e.g. some for travel grants, where I also had to attach them directly to the application) are among the top 10 things in my life I am proud of.

So in case your students do good work and you will write lots of positive stuff, I see nothing wrong in having the students read it. It will give them a push in confidence and motivation, and will inspire them to work even harder!


I believe the default should be handing the letter to the person who asked you for it, and if requested, sending a copy someplace else as well. Why should the contents of your recommendation be hidden from her/him? To make it easier for you to badmouth him/her? If you don't feel like making the recommendation, just decline.

So I'd oblige the request regardless of the justification you were given.


I do believe it is different for a doctorate than for someone say applying for a clerical position. The reason I say this is I have worked various colleges or universities and whenever I have asked for a letter of recommendation from a boss or supervisor and they are not credentialed they have always handed over to me the typed letter. On the other hand when and have asked one of our doctors for a letter I have they have always asked for the email address so they may send it. When I explain to them that the letter is on the list of things I am to include in my packet they have always complied but many have said they have never heard of it being done this way. I think the difference is the credential, at least in my experience.


I know this is an old question, but I'm a little surprised no one pointed out that in the US, the student is legally entitled to see letters of recommendation because they are part of the student's academic record. Many applications ask that the student waive this right and don't take seriously letters without the waiver. But in principle there is absolutely nothing wrong with a student seeing their letters. Even if the student signs the waiver, there is nothing wrong with the letter-writer voluntarily giving the letter to the student anyway.


You should accede to the request, but make it clear that what you write is likely to be less helpful than if you were writing a bespoke reference sent to the relevant institution directly and confidentially.

In the UK, we would call this a request for an "open reference" -- that is, a reference which the candidate can see and is at liberty to forward where he/she wishes. Some people publish "open references" on their online profiles. You should consider carefully what you write in an "open reference", since your comments and reputation may end up far more public and be remembered for far longer than would be the case for a bespoke and/or confidential reference.

As a result of this consideration, an "open reference" tends to be more generic (because it is not tailored to a specific application) and focus on facts. Given that many academic institutions want a referee's detailed evaluation of a candidate (rather than confirmation that the candidate was at X during yyyy–yyyy), this makes the "open reference" a disadvantageous medium. In any case, praise in an "open reference" might not be taken as seriously as in a bespoke and/or confidential reference.

[Possible exception: if you are a notable authority and your praise is very strong (e.g.:

"Josephine Bloggs is the finest young physicist I have ever taught, and I have no doubt that her pioneering work will soon make my theories of relativity obsolete." -- Prof. Albert Einstein

), the fact that you are happy for it to be published all over the world wide web might work in the candidate's favour.]


I believe that you should hand the letter to whoever asked you for it. You aren't handing in some super secret document that no one but the school is supposed to read. It's a letter of recommendation.

Back when I was in school and asked for such letter, professors would even sit down with me and write it out, asking me what I thought. One professor told me:

Let's cut the mumbo-jumbo. You're an adult and you know what your qualities are. Tell me what you think you think about yourself and then I will show you what I wrote in the letter. Let's compare notes and see if you value yourself as much as you should or if I think you need to change a few things before you go to this school.

They then printed out two copies. One to send directly to the designated school in question and one for me to keep.

While I know this is not what you're used to doing, I think you have to treat it like what it is; a letter.

I will add that several schools I applied to all wanted the letter to be sent in by me with my application or brought in personally by me when applying in person.

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