Why you should never write your own letter of recommendation

The reason you should not write your own recommendation is that you cannot write one that is good enough.

A good recommendation is from someone who can (and is willing to) say things about you that you would not have said.  And so he will praise you in ways that you could not.

The reason has to do with something like the logic of friendship, and the fact that writing recommendation letters is the kind of obligation that is partly a favor (or gift) and is expected to be undertaken and written as if it were (even if it only partly is).  This is linked in turn to ideas of what is excellence in scholarly and scientific work, and to the fact that it is evaluated in part based on subjective judgments, which in turn rely upon the fact that the mentor-protégé relationship in which the recommendation letter is ideally inscribed has something of the informal character of a friendship.

Indeed, and this is important to understand: the scholarly profession is one of those in which economies of gift exchange strangely overlap with and also legitimate the properly capitalist economy and the bureaucratic character of both universities and the scholarly profession, in ways that are doubtless linked to the way informal hierarchies of evaluation and judgment overlap with the formal ones of competitions for positions, including in graduate and professional schools.  And recommendation letters exist in the intersection of these two economies, one formal and one informal.

Consider: a good friend will understand you in ways that you do not.  And so will see things in you that you don’t readily recognize, and if she (or he) truly is a friend, these will be mainly virtuous traits.

In the broad sense of "love" that applies to friendships generally and to professional friendships in academia (which can be quite close, though hopefully the obvious bounds that should not be transgressed are not approached), no one is self-sufficient.  Typically, someone commenting on you will also feel obligated to comment on some flaw or weakness in your character as person or scholar, but they should not agree to write a letter unless their sense of you is very strongly positive on the whole.  And they also usually know that the rule of the game in competitions for positions is that one concedes a minor flaw.  When you ask for a letter, you should get a reply that will give some idea of the kind of letter they can write.  They may say, "I will be very happy to recommend you because I was very impressed by how you....." Or you can ask where they think you should apply.  You will have an idea of how those schools or programs rank in your field, and if your advisor or prof thinks you should apply to the very best ones, then he probably thinks you are a candidate for those schools.

For the same reasons, you should waive your right to see a copy of the letter.  You can ask if they think they are in a position to write you a very good letter, and much of the time, they will reply with some indication of what they will say.  But the full secrecy of what they say should be granted them, because it stems from the principle that what is already known and knowable is less valuable than what is revealed about you or disclosed.  If they want you to know, they will tell you.  Strange as it may sound, this secrecy or non-disclosure does not so much guard their ability to criticize you as their ability to praise you.  And this logic is built-in to the recommendation letter and the practices of writing and reading them.  Of course, you can probably make a good guess at how the prof sees you because you know what work you did for him.  He will see some facets of your work that you did not, and they will mostly be very positive, but you do know who did your best work for, and you have some idea, partly from her grade and comments, how good it was.

If you think you can do it yourself, try it, as an exercise.  Most people who write their own letters say things about themselves that are already known and that they may have said in their personal statement.  (It is in your personal statement that you can speak eloquently about who you are and what you have done and want to do.  Everything in its place).  Or they use the kind of hype that is common in the business world and that sounds shallow. (Academics make judgments that are more nuanced and qualified, and the mandatory optimism and enthusiasm of the business world are largely absent here).  Inevitably, these self-promotion letters are weak and boring compared to what someone else who likes the person and their work could have written.  There’s just something about most of us that actually makes it hard to praise ourselves without seeming to boast, or to otherwise say things that ring hollow and dull.  Probably this has something to do with our unsurmountable opacity and strangeness to one another, as well as something like the unconscious (as in psychoanalysis), which may in part be a name for an excess of what is meant over what is said or vice-versa.  And arguably, no one really loves or admires themselves, Narcissus’s fateful self-regard notwithstanding; when people speak of self-love they often mean self-acceptance.  And if you try to say something about your virtues that will sound like something you didn’t know about yourself, - I think you will find that’s awfully hard to do and do well.

The good news is that if you have done some really great work for one, or hopefully two or three professors, and three is all you need, he or she will feel obligated to write you a letter, even though you will of course asked for it as a favor.  (If you really want someone to do something for you, offer them the chance to do a favor they feel unable to refuse.  There is perhaps in this some curious conjunction of desire and obligation that has roots in our, for better and worse, still predominantly Christian culture.  There are good and bad things about the recommendation letter and the ways in which it is a mark of success in the university as tied in part to relationships of personal dependence; the ultimate in this is of course the doctoral dissertation.  This structuration of the scholarly world also necessitates that potential PhD students look for potential mentors to study with in deciding what schools to apply to; and in fact, this is the most important factor and must be clearly reflected in a personal statement, where, in conjunction with elaboration of a potential (you can change it later; the point is to show you can formulate one) dissertation research project, it is its most important component).

If your letter-writer has asked you to write his letter for him, that is a bad sign.  Sure, you could propose a bullet-point list of your achievements, but if those are already known (you can submit a CV and also have your personal statement as well as a transcript), what is the point?  That letter is valuable which says something about you that only the letter-writer can have known.

If you are requesting a letter from someone abroad who teaches in a different language, you should politely tell them that you can have their letter translated, and then do that.  You may want to have it translated by a service that does this and can certify it.  Or you can have it translated and send the translation to the professor to sign, if he reads English but just does not feel so comfortable writing it.

Otherwise, you are better off just asking some other professor.  If you have 2 good letters from professors, you can get one from an employer.

We know what good recommendation letters are like, and can indeed edit them.  If your professor or other recommending letter writer, perhaps because he/she is foreign and writes imperfect English, wants a letter to be reviewed and edited or with editorial suggestions made, ask her or him to email to us (do not send it to us yourself).  We will guarantee (his/her) confidentiality and not release the letter or specific information as to its contents to you without the letter writer's permission and indication that your own right to waive the letter writer's confidentiality has not been exercised.  For the above reasons, it is in fact in your interest that this confidentiality is strictly observed.  We will tell you if we think it is a very good letter or not, and if not, why, which we can indicate in terms that are general and do not involve improper disclosure.

William HeidbrederComment