Should You Write Your Own Recommendation Letter for Graduate School?

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"I asked my professor to write me a letter of recommendation for graduate school. She asked that I draft the letter myself and send it to her. Is this unusual? What should I do?"

In the business world, it's not uncommon for employers to ask employees to draft a letter for any purpose on their behalf. The employer then reviews the letter and adds, deletes, and edits the information before sending it to whomever it needs to be sent. Can the process look the same in academia? Is it okay for a professor to ask you to write your own recommendation letter and is it okay for you to write it?

Many undergraduates applying for graduate school are faced with this dilemma: They need a recommendation letter from a professor and the professor has asked them to write it themselves. If this happens to you, keep the following things in mind.

It Matters More Who Sends It Than Who Wrote It

Some argue that it is unethical for applicants to write their own letters because admissions committees want the professor's insight and opinion, not the candidate's. Others say that a letter that is obviously written by the applicant could detract from the entire application. However, consider the purpose of a recommendation letter. Through it, a professor gives their word that you're a good candidate for graduate school and they will not vouch for you if you are not grad school material no matter who penned the letter.

Trust the integrity of the professor requesting this favor of you and remember that they are only asking you to write the words, not recommend yourself on their behalf, then get to work writing a great letter.

Writing Your Own Letter Is Really Not That Different

Standard practice when it comes to letters of recommendation is for applicants to provide professors with a packet of information as background for writing the letter. This typically includes information about the programs to which they are applying, their goals, admissions essays, and descriptions of significant research or other experiences that boost credibility. Professors often follow up with a student by asking a few questions whose answers will help them to craft an effective message. Most professors will even ask what things they want to be included and how they want the letter to contribute to the whole application.

Conceptually, providing your professor with a profile of information and answers in the form of a letter rather than a loose collection of information is no different than the typical process—and it's less work for both of you.

Help Your Busy Professor Out

Professors are busy. They have many students and are probably asked to write several recommendation letters each semester. This is one reason why a professor might ask a student to draft their own letter. Another reason is that writing your own letters guarantees for your prof that information you would like to include about yourself is included. Even a professor who thinks very highly of you and with whom you are close might not know exactly what to write when the time comes but wants to act in your best interest.

They might also feel overwhelmed when asked to write a perfect recommendation letter because there is pressure for them to make you shine and secure a spot for you at your dream school. Remove some of the stress and help them to understand what you want to be highlighted by giving them an outline.

You Don't Have the Final Say

The letter you draft is probably not exactly the letter that will be submitted. Virtually no professor will submit a student's letter without reading and editing it as they see fit, especially if they are given an appropriate window of time to do so. Moreover, most students lack experience writing a recommendation letter and some tweaks will need to be made just to improve the quality.

A student's letter serves mostly as a starting point and a professor still needs to agree with its content. A professor is taking ownership of any letter they sign regardless of edits or additions made or not made. A recommendation letter is a professor's statement of support and they will not put their name behind you without agreeing with every word.