Do you write your recommendation letters?


This is a question for both the people requesting letters of recommendation, and those who are signing the letters of recommendation.

About a month ago, a blog post-ish thing was published in Science, that was griping about a not-rare phenomenon. Sometimes when junior scientists ask for letters of recommendation, they’re asked to write a first draft of the letter. This is, allegedly, “minor fraud.”

This week I observed an online conversation about this, which had a diversity of opinions. (I tried in vain to find the appropriate links from others, but feel free to add them in the comments.) Is asking for a letter draft okay? If it’s a bad thing, how bad is it? Are there extenuating circumstances?

Our trainees deserve our efforts to write an original recommendation letter. Of course they do. I’m not talking about that.

On two occasions, I’ve been asked to write a draft of a letter for myself. Once was when I was a grad student, applying for a fellowship. The other time, I was already a tenured professor applying for a faculty position. In the latter case, I know the letter-writer made substantial changes to the letter, and in the former, I really have no idea.

Have I ever asked this of a student? Well, yeah, I have a few times.

Once I started writing rec letters, I committed myself to writing substantial and detailed letters for everyone who got one.

Since I’ve been teaching and advising for 20 years, I’ve softened that position.

Sometimes, a student who needs and deserves a letter is also a student who lacks the connections to faculty to have a letter written for them.

In what circumstance do I ask students to write their own drafts of their letters? There are two categories. The first is when a student comes to me on a very tight deadline. This is a person who would deserve a well-written and well-considered letter from me, but they need it very very soon or they’ll miss out. I can’t take the 30-60 minutes to write a letter for them but I can take the five minutes to improve a letter and make sure it represents all parties fairly and appropriately. While some, I’m sure, will argue that the ethical thing is to let the student just miss the deadline, sometimes when the stakes are high enough and a student has been consistently responsible with coursework, then I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and decide they deserve a chance to make the deadline even if the letter isn’t that great.

The second category is when I don’t know them well enough but they just need a letter — just some letter signed by a professor — that doesn’t have to be amazing but the need the box checked on their application for whatever.

In both situations, it’s not a favor to the students to ask them to write the letter, but it is a favor that lets them have a letter when they need one. I’ve only done this a few times. So far, each letter has been far from glowing. The letter doesn’t help them as much as one that I would have written on my own, if I had the opportunity to have done so. They’re merely workable and satisfy the need of a recommendation letter, and no more.

Our tenure-track faculty are outnumbered by our majors by about 100 to one. Most of our majors are first-generation college students and no matter how much we exhort, many of them won’t ever come by our office hours. Especially those who stand most to benefit from having a personal conversation with us.

I realize it’s crass and opportunistic, but some folks advise students to buddy up with their professors — to “cultivate” them — in anticipation of recommendation letters. You know when some students are chatting with you in your office because they want to chat? A lot of them are there simply because they just want rec letters down the road. Most of the students in my university lack the social capital to have access to such self-serving advice. Some of our students who have performed well academically, with a variety of aptitudes, will not have three professors lined up to write the excellent letters of recommendation that they deserve. That’s especially a problem considering that the majority of classes they’ll be taking are from adjunct instructors, who aren’t being paid to do anything than teach their classes.

If an academically high-performing student asks me for a letter, and I don’t know them that well at all, I’m not going to shut the door on them. Just because some students were never coached to pretend to be interested in a collegial relationship with their professors doesn’t mean that they don’t deserve a solid recommendation for a job or for grad school or professional school.

If I don’t have any meaningful anecdotes to include in the letter, then they can’t be in the letter. But I don’t want to write a one-paragraph by-the-numbers letter that doesn’t say anything about them as human beings. So, I ask the student if they want to write a draft of the letter that they feel might communicate something about themselves better than I can. I don’t rubber-stamp the letter, and I don’t sign my name to anything that I can’t vouch and verify and stand by.

On the rare occasions when I’ve asked students for an initial draft of a recommendation letter, it’s been a way to let the student have a letter when they otherwise would not be getting one. I’m willing to help out a student, who I don’t know well, if I think they deserve a letter. After I tell them I can’t write it, if they’re desperate, I might let them write their own draft for me to edit. That’s not all bad, I don’t think. If I did this for the students who I know well and have worked directly with me? Well, I think that wouldn’t be a good thing.

The culprit here is an academic system in which students can get through at least four years of university and they don’t even have three professors who know them that well. Students from universities like mine are experiencing a structural disadvantage against students who can afford to attend small liberal arts colleges where professors often get to know all of the students in their department. I can’t pretend I have oodles of academic intimacy available for all of my students, but I’m reluctant to shut out those who are attempting to get their foot in the door while competing with students with much more social capital.

5 thoughts on “Do you write your recommendation letters?

  1. I have them write the letter and if I agree with it I will sign it. I have recommended changes and pointed out items I thought they missed. This forces them to look at themselves.

  2. I write all my letters. Our health professions committee requires that pre-med students prepare a professional biography and students are supposed to give a faculty member writing the letter a copy. The other students who ask for letters have had me in a class. I ask students to write down for me things that I should know about them that pertain to their application besides what I know about them from the class I took with them. (If they did research with professor X and can write a little about their research experience). For instance, I teach plant ecology and I write letters for pre-professional students. I might ask them what they got from my course that would help their future. If I only know the student as an advisee….I ask them to provide a resume so I have something more to say than what courses they have taken in our department. If my signature is on it….I have to have written it.

  3. I write all of my letters. I have an official policy that outlines who I will write letters for (and who I can’t write letters for) and my rationale for that. I also explicitly mention the amount of time that I need to write a good letter and the materials that the student must provide in order for me to craft a solid letter. Instituting this policy has helped to keep me sane!

  4. I write all of my letters, but I’ve started asking students to give me a list of thing they’d like me to mention in my letter. I’ve found this pretty useful—my students are pretty thoughtful about what they’d like me to highlight, it helps particularly when I don’t know the student very well, and it serves to remind me of how we’ve interacted in class or through research or whatever. (Often I find I’ve forgotten that a student contributed a certain piece to a project, and their list helps trigger my memory in that way. Or, since most of the classwork I assign is done in groups or pairs, their list helps me figure out exactly what and how they contributed to their classwork.) And if I’m pressed for time, I write roughly a sentence per bullet point, and that’s better than nothing, I suppose. I do tell students that if they give me very short notice, (a) I am likely to say no because I’m busy, even if I know them very well, and/or (b) their letter will likely be short/perfunctory.

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