Sunday, November 10, 2013

Should college applicants write their own reference letters?

Just before 10:30 p.m., as the Red Sox were dominating the St. Louis Cardinals in the sixth inning of the sixth game of this year's World Series, I received an email on my phone from a former student. Having moved to New York years ago, apparently she was not all that interested in watching a Boston team win.

She had decided to go back to school and was applying to graduate programs to further pursue what she had studied as an undergraduate. She began by filling me in on the reasoning for her decision and then segued to request if I could write recommendations for her to the graduate schools to which she was applying.

Since she had been a strong student who had kept me abreast of what she had been doing in the years since graduating, I had no problem agreeing to her request.

But she continued with a sentence at the end of her email that threw me a bit: "Because I understand you might be very busy, I'd be happy to draft up a recommendation with some basics that you may then edit to whatever extent you see fit."

I wrote back that I'd be glad to write the recommendations but that I wouldn't be comfortable having someone write his or her own recommendation that I could simply edit.

That was fine she replied and thanked me.

I've written in the past about students who have others write or re-write their college application essays for them, a practice that I find to be dishonest in that it doesn't reflect the work of the applicant.

But here someone was offering to write a letter for me to use to recommend her. Out of curiosity, I emailed her again and asked if other recommenders had accepted her offer.

Yes, she wrote. "I actually offered because two other people have flat out asked me to write drafts for them to edit." She indicated that she now found herself in the position of having to figure out how to write a recommendation letter for herself that will ultimately be from someone else, a process that she acknowledged was going to be "a little uncomfortable."

It may be naive to believe that such a practice doesn't go on regularly, but does that make it an acceptable practice?

No. While no one at the receiving institution might be any wiser since only the applicant and recommender would know, it's not an honest representation of what it purports to be. Prospective recommenders should either write their own letters or simply decline the requests if they don't have the time or the desire to do so.

A couple of days after her request, my former student wrote to tell me that the applications for a couple of the schools had a little box that applicants had to check where you swear you had no part in editing or drafting the recommendation letter being submitted. "So I'm now facing a more serious ethical dilemma," she wrote.

The right thing seems clear. Only ask recommenders who are willing to write the actual letter that they will ultimately represent as their own work. If they're not inclined to do so, ask someone else. 

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of  The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business and The Good, the Bad, and Your Business: Choosing Right When Ethical Dilemmas Pull You Apartis a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 

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Lian said...

School admissions, scholarships, and job applications are so competitive these days that applicants who want a decent chance at success need to aim for the fullest and most over-the-top letters from the most prominent, credible people who are willing to vouch for them. These recommenders tend be very busy and to have way too many demands on their time already.

Rather than saying that these people should devote every weekend hour to letter writing, or that applicants should draft their own letters, I think it'd be helpful to question whether the recommendation letter system is working. If a few former professors or employers liked your work enough that they subsequently hired you or collaborated with you, couldn't that serve as evidence that they would, in fact, vouch for you? I think an appropriate record of employment and activities should speak volumes for a candidate's ability to perform and work well with others.

Maybe a (very) reduced level of input would be helpful, such as three multiple choice questions and a 100 word statement. Services that allow a recommender to provide a letter once, authorizing many possible uses of it, are also helpful. End the letter recommendation arms race!

Anonymous said...

I'm showing my age, but I can only refer back to the tardy decision and my unhurried intent to "go to college" as an 18 year old in 1952. I carelessly postponed any investigation of it during the summer and finally, I had to have my parents contact my intended college's authorities to get permission to attend as a freshman. Not realizing today's current competitive environment compared to conditions 55 years ago, it may be difficult for today's readers to understand the nanchalance with which my getting approved to attend the college of my choice was taken so lightly and postponed until way past reasonable time limits. I am thankful my college days took place in a less competitive environment, but it does show current readers the much more relaxed times from the '50's when I finally went to college! I certainly failed to do the least amount of self-promotion!

Charlie Seng
Lancaster, SC