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"student often made rude and inappropriate requests"
October 5, 2009 10:46 AM   Subscribe

A question about university reference letter etiquette.

I'm about to ask a few of my former university professors for references letters. Is it customary for professors to provide a copy of the reference letter to the requesting student before they submit them to the relevant party, (i.e. the school that the student is applying to)? If not would it be bad form to request to see the letters before they are forwarded?

I'm not worried that the letters will be negative but I'd rather have a look at what is said before it becomes part of my application. I'm sure I'm just being paranoid but I hate the idea of not having control over such an important part of my application.

thanks
posted by hector horace to Education (13 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
 
In academia, you don't usually get to see your reference letters, and any reference letters which are known to have been looked at are taken with a grain of salt. This is where the "Would you feel comfortable providing me a strong reference ..." song and dance question comes from.

Things get a little different if you're in a field where there is a strong intersection between academia and industry, but generally, you don't get to see 'em. Sorry.
posted by Comrade_robot at 10:50 AM on October 5, 2009 [1 favorite]


A large part of the point of the reference letter is that you don't have control over it. Many professors would be very uncomfortable showing it to you, or writing one if you asked for editorial control. You could perhaps request to see if after they've been mailed out.
posted by brainmouse at 10:54 AM on October 5, 2009


When I applied to graduate school, I had to check a little box on my grad applications specifically saying that I was waiving the right to see my letters of recommendation. Do your applications lack this little box?

Some professors won't care about letting you see the letter; some professors will even have you write the letter yourself. Other professors will consider this letter very confidential. This is why it is very important to ask your professors if they can write you a strong letter of recommendation -- if they say "yes," maybe you should believe them and leave it at that?
posted by cabezadevaca at 10:55 AM on October 5, 2009


You can't look at them beforehand. That would undermine candor. So, asking to see the letter beforehand would be, as you said, "inappropriate."

But it wouldn't be inappropriate to point out that you're only interested in a strong letter, not a letter that implicitly says, "He's OK but I don't know much about him or feel strongly about his application." I have told potential recommenders flat-out that I'm only interested in an outstanding recommendation. If they know they wouldn't write an outstanding recommendation, they should then politely tell you that maybe it'd be best if you got someone else to write it.
posted by Jaltcoh at 10:57 AM on October 5, 2009


thanks guys! I just wanted to make sure. TOO MUCH PARANOIA!
posted by hector horace at 10:57 AM on October 5, 2009


some professors will even have you write the letter yourself.

Maybe so, but that would be a bad idea.
posted by Jaltcoh at 10:58 AM on October 5, 2009


You could perhaps request to see if after they've been mailed out.

That's actually still inappropriate since you might need a recommendation letter from the same person in the future.
posted by Jaltcoh at 10:59 AM on October 5, 2009


Etiquette (and honor) aside, you could always request letters for all the schools you're applying to, and also one you're not applying to, open and read the extra one, and nobody will be the wiser. There's almost no way that a professor is going to take time to write different letters for different schools.
posted by ripple at 11:14 AM on October 5, 2009


Most professors keep it confidential, but I have had one or two provide me a copy (though I never requested one). In both case, the copy was provided after the fact, with a wink and a nod, more or less.
posted by wheat at 11:18 AM on October 5, 2009


I've been on admissions committees (for a PhD program) and the letters with the "I waive my rights" box were considered to carry more weight than those that the applicant could see. This was true whether the letters were positive or negative. So if you get a positive letter but you haven't ticked the box then you're doing yourself a disservice.
posted by tractorfeed at 11:39 AM on October 5, 2009


Etiquette (and honor) aside, you could always request letters for all the schools you're applying to, and also one you're not applying to, open and read the extra one, and nobody will be the wiser. There's almost no way that a professor is going to take time to write different letters for different schools.

No, you should have the professor send the letter directly so that this definitely won't happen.
posted by Jaltcoh at 1:01 PM on October 5, 2009


Of the three profs I asked for letters, two just provided the letters, sealed and signed. The one professor with whom I worked showed me the letter she wrote and asked if there was anything I wanted to add or change. I still never looked at the final letter, because I wanted to be able to check the "waive my rights" box. If you have an especially close relationship with one of your recommenders, then you might get a chance to take a look, but I wouldn't bank on it.
posted by solipsophistocracy at 1:37 PM on October 5, 2009


I didn't waive my right to look (in fact, one of my professors gave me a copy of the letter he wrote)when I applied for my MFA and was accepted....however, I asked to look at the other letters AFTER I got into the program.
posted by brujita at 10:37 PM on October 5, 2009


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