Draft Your Own Recommendation?
March 18, 2011 2:25 PM   Subscribe

What Would You Do When A Professor Tells You to Draft Your Own Recommendation?

This hasn't happened to me yet, but I've heard/read that it happened to certain people. Some people got into their dream schools after drafting them and having the profs edited the letters. Some others say don't even bother if a prof ever asks so, let alone the ethical issue.

I'd like to get a "show of hands" whether go for it or avoid at all cost, just in case one of the profs does this when I ask for recommendations in the future.

And are there any other general to-do's or no-no's regarding asking for recommendation letters?

Thanks a lot in advance.
posted by easilyconfused to Education (25 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Do it. First, if they are telling you to write your own letter of recommendation, they already have a fair amount of confidence in you. Second, they are under no obligation to sign what you write.

Write a glowing but truthful letter that highlights your abilities and accomplishments. Pass it to your prof and don't worry about it.
posted by Nightman at 2:30 PM on March 18, 2011 [4 favorites]

There was just a piece in the Ethicist column (from the New York Times) about this.
posted by egeanin at 2:33 PM on March 18, 2011

It hasn't happened to me, but I have some colleagues who wrote their own letter (and they got grants). I've always found it weird, but I guess once the professor asks you to do it it might be awkward to he insist that they write it.
posted by ddaavviidd at 2:34 PM on March 18, 2011

This is pretty standard. Just do it.
posted by mr_roboto at 2:42 PM on March 18, 2011 [4 favorites]

When I studied industrial psychology, my professor said that he always did this - because research showed that most people were pretty accurate in their self-evaluations when asked to write their own references. So, I'd go for it - science is on your side.
posted by Infinite Jest at 2:43 PM on March 18, 2011

A prof is a busy person with lots of students to keep track of. They don't want to run the risk of mixing up your accomplishments or forgetting something important. So you write up things which you have done that would be most relevant to your relationship to the prof - don't go over the top, don't mention things he or she would have no knowlege of. When I have done this in the past, the recommender has rewritten it and seemed to only use my letter to jog their memory. Don't feel weird about it. They get this request probably dozens of times a year.
posted by amanda at 2:44 PM on March 18, 2011

None of my professors asked me to do that, for which I was grateful. But if they do, it would be awkward to say no, and they're authorizing you to write a glowing letter -- so go ahead and do it, it's not an ethical issue.
posted by J. Wilson at 2:46 PM on March 18, 2011

I think this is a fairly common thing and with good reason - there are probably lots of good things about you that the professor doesn't know. Your prof doesn't want to miss these things and jeopardize your chances, and they probably don't have the time to have a conversation with you to find them out. You're just helping the prof help you.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 2:47 PM on March 18, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks for the responses so far.

What really puzzles me is that aren't you already glorifying yourself in letter of intent? And when you write your own recommendation, it should be a letter from this particular prof's perspective and magnifying one segment of your achievements (might have been mentioned in letter of intent) working under the prof's supervision with brief outlines of other personal aspects, right? Won't anyone notice the writing styles share uncanny similarities? :P Sounds like creative writing now. lol.
posted by easilyconfused at 2:56 PM on March 18, 2011

Don't do it, no matter how common it is or what "The Ethicist" says.

You should have your professors actually write the recommendation letters for you. Why? Because they're the most capable of writing it. Because it's their job. It's a subtle task that you're not experienced in. You could inadvertently use language that seems to have a subtext of "easilyconfused was nothing special, but I'm just writing a polite recommendation letter." Or the whole thing might have an inauthentic feel to it. Sorry, but students do write differently from professors. And as you astutely pointed out, it will be apparent if all your admissions materials are written in the same voice.

To be clear, I'm not saying anything about whether it's "ethical." I'm just saying that it's a bad idea. It's against your interest to write your own recommendation, when you're presumably a novice and you're definitely wildly biased, instead of having it written by a professional from a genuine, balanced, experienced, first-person perspective.

I also don't understand this answer: "this is a fairly common thing and with good reason - there are probably lots of good things about you that the professor doesn't know." The point of a recommendation letter is for the professor to communicate what they do know about you.
posted by John Cohen at 3:03 PM on March 18, 2011 [3 favorites]

I didn't have to do write any of my own recommendations, but I did provide my resume when asking for my letters along with some talking points that I'd appreciate they spoke to if they could do so in good conscience. They all were very appreciative of this.
posted by smirkette at 3:07 PM on March 18, 2011

I've asked students to draft their own recommendations for a number of the reasons mentioned above, and also because I think that honest self-advocacy is a great skill for any student to develop.

It's only a point of departure, though, for what I actually write and sign. The student's draft includes good things I didn't know about her. My final draft adds good things she didn't know about herself.

Have at it! It's good for you.
posted by FLAG (BASTARD WATER.) (Acorus Adulterinus.) at 3:27 PM on March 18, 2011 [3 favorites]

Like others have said, it's normal... but really hard to do the first time. No professor I know would use your draft unchanged, but they do use it to save a step and learn more about you.
posted by Forktine at 3:29 PM on March 18, 2011

I sometimes do a variation of this when a student asks me for a ref letter. It helps me understand better how a student conceptualizes themselves, their skills and achievements relative to the position (job or grad school usually). I don't just sign it as my own EVER. I use it as one source of info on a student, including the cover letter written by the student, their CV, a blurb about the department/job applied for, and my own course info. What do you do about it? You do whatever the person asking you to write the ref letter asks you to do.
posted by kch at 4:03 PM on March 18, 2011

Supplying a draft of a personal statement, copies of your transcript, a CV, or other info about yourself so that your recommender can write a substantive letter -- this is normal and expected. But a prof who asks you to draft your own letter is both lazy and unethical, and s/he WILL BE FOUND OUT sooner or later, because people talk. It's better to have the support of people who act like professionals, not like plagiarists.

Of course, if this is for B-school or law school, you check your ethics at the door in any case -- so no worries.
posted by philokalia at 4:06 PM on March 18, 2011

Write something that your prof would be happy having his/her name attached to if asked about it. Different people will edit it to different extents, but very few would sign without ensuring they agree with the content.

It is also a useful approach to reference letters, because you are the most familiar with what else is in the rest of your application, and so you can bring up things that are not mentioned elsewhere, or shore up the thinner areas, rather than merely and boringly repeat what's already been established in other letters, thus creating a stronger (and more interesting) overall application.
posted by -harlequin- at 4:13 PM on March 18, 2011

It's against your interest to write your own recommendation, when you're presumably a novice and you're definitely wildly biased, instead of having it written by a professional from a genuine, balanced, experienced, first-person perspective.


a prof who asks you to draft your own letter is both lazy and unethical, and s/he WILL BE FOUND OUT sooner or later

What are you going to find out about me? That I use it as one of my sources of info to write my own letter? Lazy and unethical? Really? Are we all assuming that the draft is used AS IF it is the profs own words/opinions, as the only source of information? Yes, that would be unethical.

If you're concerned this is what's going to happen with your draft, ask the prof directly: "Are you going to sign my draft directly or are you going to use this draft as one piece of information in writing your own letter of recommendation?"
posted by kch at 4:15 PM on March 18, 2011 [2 favorites]

Supplying a draft of a personal statement, copies of your transcript, a CV, or other info about yourself so that your recommender can write a substantive letter

These are essentially useless in writing a letter, since any information included in the letter from the CV, transcript, or personal statement will already be available to the admissions committee. The only reason a recommendation letter should have to mention grades or CV items is to explain away shortcomings.

Frankly, I think that drafting a recommendation letter for yourself is an incredibly worthwhile exercise, and can help you improve your overall approach to applying to positions.
posted by mr_roboto at 4:41 PM on March 18, 2011

I don't think it is an inherently Bad Thing. But at the same time, I question the commitment of the person making this demand. I am a professor and I have never thought of asking a student to do such a thing. Writing a recommendation is a huge responsibility, at least in my mind. If I am uncertain about taking it on, I am honest with the student. I tell him or her that I don't think I can write a very strong letter for them. Does this professor seem like someone who is comfortable being straight with people?

In a best case scenario, it sounds like the professor you're talking about is overworked--they like you, but they are not able to commit the time to writing your letter. But it is also possible that they are asking you to write your own letter because they are not invested in you as a student. Having you draft your own letter could be a bit of a cop out for someone who is actually inclined to say no to writing a positive letter but lacks backbone. If this were to be the case, it's also possible that their rewrite of your drafted letter would tone down the positives to reflect the (possibly) half hearted commitment they feel towards you.

In the end, I would be wary of this situation. Admissions committees look at the whole package, and your self-drafted letter is not going to make or break your candidacy by itself. But the larger, and harder, question, is whether this person is reluctant to draft their own letter because they are not that committed to you as a student. And if you respect this person, their lack of commitment may point to some weak spots in your application or, more generally, your candidacy.
posted by Morpeth at 4:57 PM on March 18, 2011

I have been on both sides of this. i did find it embarrassing to pile on the praise when I know someone I knew was going to read it but blowing your own trumpet is something you need to learn in job hunting anyway. I do get my ownstudents to do this now, and they are not necessarily brilliant at bringing out their own best qualities, but it is probably a good exercise for them to think about what the job is asking for and how that relates to their skill set. You are crazy if you think a prof is just going to sign their name on any old drivel through! My advice would be, if asked, you definitely take your prof up on the offer, put in everything positive you possible can, not everything will survive but you might come up with stuff that is useful, that your prof. would not have thought of and which survives their edit.
posted by biffa at 5:51 PM on March 18, 2011

Be cogent and truthful. There was an issue, at one time, where letters were written by students of a certain university; skills overblown and graduate programs unhappy. Result was students no longer drafting fulsom letters due to threats of outright rejection of candidates from that school.

I, personally, expect a prof to know you well enough to write your letter. Hopefully, they are providing guidance regarding options and programs that will suite you the best. I am old fashioned. Again, be clear and honest.
posted by jadepearl at 8:23 PM on March 18, 2011

I give my students a template of a letter, they expand it to a rough draft, and I finish it and edit it (heavily in some cases). I don't sign it until it's in my words. I do this because this avoids errors in names and facts and it significantly speeds the process for me. But I have over 200 students a year and often get requests for reference letters/recommendations a year or two after I have the students in class. I don't consider this lazy - I consider this a smart way to make sure I get the details right. I would only consider it an ethical breach (on either side) if the students were signing and submitting the letters too. If the professor is signing it then they are "owning" it, and you can assume that they know how to produce something that they will stand behind.
posted by dness2 at 10:10 PM on March 18, 2011 [3 favorites]

I did this once when I discovered the night before a grant application was due that I needed a letter of rec. I got on the phone with my adviser, and she asked me to write the letter myself. I asked her what she would say and typed furiously as she talked. I then filled in the different things I've done as examples of the points she made and added her e-signature. I got the grant.
posted by quiet coyote at 9:30 AM on March 19, 2011

I've never written my own, but I was once asked what I needed included by a Professsor I'd worked with. I was making a sideways move into an area he wasn't too familiar with, so he wanted to know what aspects of my skills and experience were important in the new field so he could focus on relevant information. I told him the skills that I thought were important to the new field, it was up to him to say whether or not I had those skills in the reference.

So ethics aside, there may be other good reasons for the subject to contribute to a reference.
posted by *becca* at 10:26 AM on March 19, 2011

In my experience recommenders are looking for two things in this regard: 1) something to give them a head start on writing the letter, and 2) an indication of what aspects of yourself you want to emphasize in your applications. They are also trying to develop a more definite picture of who you are in their mind.

If you aren't comfortable making a draft letter, you can instead give them some text that will jog their memory on who you are and what the recommender knows of you. For instance, I gave one of my recommenders a list of all the classes I had taken from him, a short description of some of the bigger projects I had done in those classes, a couple sentences on some out-of-class interactions we had had, and a copy of my resume and statement of purpose. The resume and statement of purpose help to give them a more rounded picture of who I am, how I'm selling myself, and what my goals are; it's not so that they can repeat their contents. Also, if your recommender chooses to concur with what your resume and statement of purpose indicate, your overall application will appear more coherent.

Best of luck on your applications!
posted by martin10bones at 5:36 PM on March 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

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