Letters of Recommendation: A Lesson In Ethics

Recommendation Letters

Letters of Recommendation: A Lesson In Ethics

There will come a time in your application process when you are responsible for collecting letters of recommendations from either academic instructors, employers, or whoever else can honestly attest to your academic or professional ability. What is the purpose of a letter of recommendation? The admissions committee considers the letter as “expert testimony” that speaks to the ability of a person to perform a task. In some cases, a letter of recommendation can be the difference between an acceptance and a waitlist to a university program.

It is not often but it has been known to occur when a professor, too busy to write the letter on your behalf, will ask you to write the letter for him or her to sign off. Not only is this act unethical but it will also disqualify you instantly from any college or university that receives such a letter. 

Many students will go ahead, aware of the dire consequences of doing so, and submit the letter signed off by the professor to the admissions committee. Remember, the admissions committee is an expert in reading recommendation letters and will pick up on a fraudulent letter almost instantaneously. If this situation ever arises during your process of collecting letters of recommendation, politely decline the potential letter-writers offer and find someone else!

Admissions committees want the professor or employer’s insight and opinion, not the applicant’s. However, there are certain moral steps that you can take as an applicant to make your letter-writer more aware of your background. And it doesn't take a lot of work, either. 

It is standard practice for an applicant to provide the letter-write with more information about himself or herself, such as a resume or a previous academic paper you have written for their class. Professors and employers will often ask follow-up questions regarding your background, in order to make their letter more effective. It might even help if you provide a separate document that highlights some of your big accomplishments, inside and outside of the classroom (or star these within your resume). 

Keep in mind that you, as an applicant, don’t have the final say in a recommendation letter. It is common practice for a professor to submit a letter without letting his or her student know the content of the letter. Part of choosing a recommender is making sure you pick someone you trust.

Finally, keep this rule in mind: if the person who purports to be recommending you doesn’t write the letter, it is not a recommendation at all.