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 that prospective students include recommendation letters with their applications. Going a step further, many graduate programs require that the envelope containing the letter be signed and sealed by the writer making the recommendation.

While students often ask the people writing these letters to return the recommendations, each in a separate signed and sealed envelope, many also wonder if it's too much to ask of their mentors. Is organizing all that paperwork unreasonable? The short answer is "no." Signed, sealed envelopes are pretty much required in order to ensure that the contents of such letters remain private. 

The Standard for Recommendation Letters

For most academic institutions that require recommendation letters, it's expected that students will not be privy to their contents. Traditionally, programs require that faculty submit recommendation letters independently of students or only pass them along to students in sealed, signed envelopes.

The problem with asking a faculty member to send recommendations directly to an admissions office is the possibility of losing a letter. Should a student choose this route, they should definitely follow up with the admissions office to be sure that all expected letters have arrived.

The second option is for faculty members to turn over their letters of recommendation directly to the student, however, as the letters are to be kept confidential, admissions committees require the envelopes be sealed by the faculty member who must then affix his or her signature over the seal (making it obvious if a student has attempted to open the envelope, either to read or alter its contents).

It's Fine to Ask for Signed, Sealed Envelopes

Many admissions officers often prefer that applications arrive complete, with faculty recommendations in the packet. Most faculty members are aware of this longstanding official preferred process for applications and do not consider a request for a signed, sealed envelope an imposition. That said, a student can make it easier by preparing an envelope for each program he or she is applying to, and clipping the recommendation form along with any relevant material to the envelope.

Electronic Submissions

Recently, electronic applications have become increasingly common, which may soon render this whole process obsolete. Instead of the traditional sign, seal, deliver process, a student will complete his or her application online, and then simply send the person writing the recommendation letter an online submission link. Students are notified if and when letters are received and will be able to contact any faculty members whose letters have not been received as expected.

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. A thank-you note is generally sufficient, although a small, appropriate token gift—though not required—may nevertheless be appreciated.