Recommendation Letter Etiquette

Are signed, sealed envelopes too much to ask?

Student in professor's study
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Graduate and undergraduate schools alike often require hopeful students to include recommendation letters with their applications, with many graduate programs requiring the envelope containing the letter be signed and sealed by the recommending writer.

Often students will ask the letter-writer to return their recommendations, each in a separate signed and sealed envelope, but many students also wonder if it's too much to ask for the mentor to do—is organizing all that paperwork unreasonable?

The short answer is no—it's almost required in order for the contents of the letter to remain private from the students they are about. 

The Standard for Recommendation Letters

For most academic institutions accepting applications that require recommendation letters, the standard is that students are not to have contact—be able to read—their letters of recommendation. Traditionally, programs required that faculty submit recommendation letters independently of the student or give them to students in sealed and signed envelopes.

The problem with asking faculty to send recommendations directly to the admissions office is the possibility of losing a letter, and if a student does choose this route, it would be best to contact the admissions office to determine that all expected letters have arrived.

The second option is for the faculty to return their letters of recommendation to the student, but the letters are confidential, so admissions committees ask that faculty seal the envelope and then sign over the seal, assuming that it will be obvious if a student opened the envelope.

It's Okay to Ask for Signed, Sealed Envelopes

Admissions offices often prefer that applications arrive complete, with faculty recommendations in the packet, and most faculty members know this, so don't feel that you're asking faculty to do too much work.

Because this is and has been a standard part of most college application processes, the letter writer will likely understand the official preferred process. That said, a student can make it easier by preparing an envelope for each program he or she is applying to, clipping the recommendation form and any relevant material to the envelope.

Recently, electronic applications have become very common, possibly even the norm, making this whole process almost obsolete. Instead of the traditional sign, seal, deliver process, a student will complete his or her application online then send the person writing the recommendation letter a link to submit it online. The student will be notified if and when the letter is received and can, therefore, contact the faculty member if any problems arise.

Don't Forget to Say Thank You

After everything is said and done, the recommendation letter and complete registration packet submitted, it's important for students to take the time to thank the person who wrote his or her recommendation letters and helped him or her in the application process. 

Although not required, a token of appreciation like flowers or candy goes a long way in returning the faculty member's consideration of the student—plus, who doesn't like getting a little thank you gift?