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," is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of http://www.jeffreyseglin.com, a blog focused on ethical issues. Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to rightthing(at)comcast.net.)
(c) 2013 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, LLC.
Should college applicants write their own reference letters?
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