Ivey Files

January 18, 2012

On Writing Your Own Recommendation Letters

I'm no longer surprised by the number of law school applicants who report that their professors make them write their own recommendation letters. Apparently these professors are content to require something of their students that they themselves would consider totally unethical in a student's work product. Is there any doubt about what would happen if a student said, "Sure, I'll agree to 'write' you a 'paper,' but I'll outsource the whole thing to someone else, and that's OK because ultimately I'll still put my name on the top of it, so I vouch for the contents. That cool with you?" At a minimum, you'd see a fair amount of finger-wagging in response.

For that reason, it's interesting that with all the insistence that your law school application essays be in your own words (and rightly so), admissions officers and LSAC seem to turn a blind eye to a widespread problem with the integrity of recommendations. (I see this on the MBA side too, where professional recommenders routinely punt the job back to the applicant.)

Law schools and LSAC would do a great service to their applicants -- and to the integrity of the application process -- if they articulated a clear policy that recommendations must be written by the recommender, and that "authorized" drafts written by the applicant are not permissible. (The current language on LSAC's page about misconduct prohibits "submission of an altered, nonauthentic, or unauthorized letter of recommendation," and that doesn't quite cover it.) A clear prohibition would give well-meaning applicants who don't actually want to write their own letters, but who feel under a certain amount of recommender-created duress to do so, enough cover to point to that language and say, "I'm sorry, the law schools say that's verboten, so I'll find someone else since you're so terribly busy." If at that point the recommenders aren't so embarrassed that they man up and write their own letters, at a minimum they can't fault you for ditching them as recommenders. (This matters, because even if you decline to write your own letter and find someone else to recommend you, you may have other reasons you need to preserve recommender #1's good opinion of you. You want to avoid burning bridges with any potential recommenders.)

I doubt that such a clear policy will emerge anytime soon, though, so in the meantime, what should applicants do if they hit this wall with a recommender? If at all possible, go find someone else, and find a graceful way to bow out of having asked in the first place. An example: "Oh gosh, I know you're terribly busy, but I don't think I'm in a position to write my own recommendation." Or whatever. Just be vague and polite and make it about how busy they must be. If they were too lazy (or busy) to write you a letter in the first place, they'll probably be happy to have you out of their hair anyway.

"But Anna!" you're thinking. "Isn't it actually a great opportunity to be able to write my own letter?" Try it first and see if it comes easily to you. It's actually very hard for most people to write glowing but credible recommendations about themselves all while trying to guess the specific, detailed opinions of someone else, and trying to recreate the voice of someone else. Most self-written letters I've seen aren't all that good, and some are downright bad.

More importantly, if the recommendation isn't written by the person who purports to be recommending you, it's not really a recommendation at all. It's phony-baloney, and I think at best it skirts the line of ethics in the application process, even if law schools and LSAC haven't taken a clear position. Don't go there. Find someone who genuinely wants to advocate for you and will write a real recommendation.

More advice on recommendations here.

Former Dean of Admissions at the University of Chicago Law School and a recovering lawyer, Anna Ivey founded Ivey Consulting to help college, law school, and MBA applicants navigate the admissions process. You can find more admissions tips in The Ivey Guide to Law School Admissions. Join the conversation here in the blog comments and on Twitter and Facebook, or email us a new question for the blog.

Neither am I a big fan of ghostwriting; however, so long as the recommendator redrafts the letter in their own words, I don't see an ethical problem. Many professors can be quite busy. Thus, an initial draft by the applicant might be quite helpful for both parties. It wouldn't surprise me if there professional references that were ghostwritten by the applicant.

Got into a PhD program based on a letter done this was by a Department Head at a highly ranked school.