I am applying to faculty positions and two of the people I asked to be my references requested me to draft the recommendation letter. I am in a STEM field. Is this common practice even when applying for faculty positions? Should I take it as a really bad sign and try to find other references for the next application I submit?

Writing one draft is daunting enough, but writing two seems even more difficult. I do not know how much the draft will get edited in the end, and I also worry that the two letters might end up looking too similar. At this point I do wish I had asked someone else, but I do not think I can retract my request.

How can I distinguish the two drafts I write? An obvious thing to take into account is how these two people know me (which will distinguish them). I can also try to introduce differences in tone and style, but doing so feels just wrong. Yet not doing this risks that it will show through that both were written by the same person. This is of course assuming that the referees will make only few edits. Unfortunately I do not know what they will do with the drafts. If they take the approach form @BrianGPeterson's answer, then there shouldn't be a problem. But I was not asked for a general description of myself or the position. I was asked for a draft.

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    An interesting follow-up question could be: "How can I draft two different recommendation letters for myself?" ! – user2390246 Mar 22 '17 at 12:34
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    Related: academia.stackexchange.com/questions/1452/… – Bravo Mar 22 '17 at 12:47
  • @user2390246 I updated the question. – Camil Mar 22 '17 at 13:00
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    Should I take it as a really bad sign and try to find other references for the next application I submit? -- Yes. – JeffE Mar 22 '17 at 13:26
  • Why can't you retract the request? For example you can tell one of the people who asked you to draft a letter that another person has also asked you to do the same thing, and that you are concerned that drafting two letters that are sufficiently different from each other is simply beyond your abilities. Then ask if he/she might be able to do it without you providing a draft, and say that if that's not practical then you would respectfully decline their letter and ask someone else instead. – Dan Romik Mar 22 '17 at 14:45

I request that the students I am to write recommendations for, including recommendations to faculty positions, provide me with an executive summary of the position they are applying for, and a bullet list of the strengths which they would like me to highlight that they feel would be relevant for that position.

I do not ask them to write the letter for me, just to give me enough input to help write an effective letter.

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    That's a good point but it does not directly answer OP's question. We do not know if the purpose of asking the student to write the rec. letter is that the professors want to see the strengths or highlighted points made by the students and then edit the draft, or not. For all we know, the letters could be used as they are. – PsySp Mar 22 '17 at 12:59
  • @PsySp true. The answer could be rephrased as advice to OP to request clarification if the draft merely serves as inspiration or will be used as is. – henning -- reinstate Monica Mar 22 '17 at 13:23

Let me answer this from a somewhat different perspective. I'm an industrial researcher and have written a fair number of letters for former interns applying to faculty positions or sometimes other research labs. I always write them myself and focus on on the experience I had with the student. And I definitely wouldn't want them putting words in my mouth.

But I've written a number of support letters for visa requests too. These are typically extremely flowery prose, talking about how absolutely wonderful the applicant is. And I hate to write such a letter because I know I won't do it in the same style that the immigration lawyers write it, and I worry my own letter won't be helpful to their cause. So in the rare case that they don't provide a template, I ask for one. Then I edit it to make sure I agree with what's said.

The closest example to the case at hand is when someone who has worked in my office asks both me and a colleague to provide a support letter for the same application. We're both asking for a draft, and the poor guy has to do exactly what OP here has to. To the extent that we describe our joint involvement, we're both going to describe the same project, and there is only so much they can be distinguished.

This case is a bit different, though, because such letters go back through the applicant. It means if we don't diverge enough after the recommenders edit the provided example, they (or their immigration attorney) can at least make a determination that more has to be done.

Getting back (at last) to the comparison with a faculty letter, it seems to me there are two questions:

  • How do you make the "voice" of these letters seem different enough that they're not apparently written by the same person? This question applies to the immigration case too, and I think the same answer applies: if you can't figure out how to make it different enough on your own, find a trusted advisor who can take the framework (similar to the answer by @Brian-g-Peterson) and rework it on your behalf.
  • How do you make sure that in the end they aren't too similar? One aspect is to make them as different as possible in the first place. Cover some points with one recommender and others with the other. Also, if there is any opportunity to review the letters, or have someone else get permission to review them on your behalf, they can be sanity checked.

Bottom line: I assume whoever takes the letter is likely to use it only as a starting point, but much of it (and possibly all of it) may survive. If they overlap, even with one (not very commonplace) sentence, it will be a huge red flag. Saying "I give XXX my strongest recommendation" is common. But not much else, if in both letters, can be explained away. Tread carefully. Or find other recommenders who'll do it themselves :)

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