Letters of Recommendation

by Harry on November 29, 2016

It’s letter-writing time.

I enjoy writing letters of recommendation. I enjoy it more than I used to because I have more practice, because I have had plenty of positive feedback, and because I have learned to get to know more of my students better than I used to. But I also enjoy it because of the opportunity it gives me to reflect on the students, their skills, and their characters. Sometimes I am a bit surprised by the letter — last year a student asked me for a letter for Law school, and I knew it would be a good letter, but articulated, during the writing of it, aspects of her as a thinker and as a person that I really admire and hadn’t fully appreciated before having to write them down. It turned out to be better than merely very good, as I had anticipated.

Letter requests rarely come as a surprise these days, and for a good number of students I have little passages written in my head while I am teaching them in anticipation of the request. But this is a part of my job that I was not trained in at all. Just like teaching, you might think, but at least when I started teaching I had watched other people do it, whereas I had never even read letters of recommendation when I started. I have, by now, read thousands of letters of recommendation: even so, most of them have been for Philosophy graduate school applications, which is not what most of my letters are for, which tend to be for professional programs and (to a much lesser extent, because letters are used much less) for entry-level jobs. (When students put me down as a reference for a job I insist they give out my cell phone number, because I know I tend to respond rapidly to a voice mail (because I still, every time, expect it is going to be from the school telling me one of my children has done something awful! – and although I am basically phone-phobic, I have really enjoyed the many brief chats with Human resources people, which often seems more efficient than letter writing.

So, below, this is I write letters for students about to graduate. Please comment in whatever way seems useful – advice for me, or other letter-writers, especially if you are a consumer of such letters.

1. If a student wants a letter from me, I ask them for the following: a cv/resume, an unofficial transcript, a personal statement (if applying for a professional school), some writing they did for discipline other than Philosophy (I have a database of their papers to hand), and a personal meeting in which we can talk about their ambitions and background. In that meeting one key question I ask is whether there is some blight on their academic record that I should know about, and that they would like me to explain in my letter (eg, the student whom I’d known since a freshman, and who I discovered had been working a full time job throughout college, and whose GPA was compromised by 8 credits of Chemistry which she could have dropped but refused to because she is gritty beyond belief).

2. I always explain, early in the letter, how I know the student, and describe his or her academic performance in my classes. Since I am very frequently the letter writer who knows the student best (more on that at the end of the post) I emphasize how well I know them by describing how long I’ve known them and the frequency of interaction while they were not in my classes.

3. I talk in the letter about their ambitions, and their personality, as they relate to the career the student is aiming for. I seem to have written a lot of letters for counseling and social work programs lately, for all of which the academic record is relevant, but for all of which various personality traits (caring, empathy, ability to listen, insight into other people) seem at least equally relevant. I have increasingly conducted my classes in ways that make it more likely that some of these traits will be revealed directly – so, for example, I require collaborative work in my freshman classes, and require that students reflect and report on the process of collaboration. With the freshmen, many of whom I will know for 4 years, I encourage them to make sure that they talk to me over time about the things they do (volunteering, interning, or working for pay) through which job-relevant traits may be revealed.

4. My letters are always at least a single-spaced page, and sometimes as long as two, but rarely longer than that (and if they ever are longer, I make them really exciting to read!). They end with a summary of how the student is suited to the trajectory they have chosen and always end with a phrase inviting the reader to get in touch if they want more information.

5. Asking for a letter of recommendation is easy for some students but it’s hard for others, and my anecdotal evidence is that this ease and difficulty are not unrelated to social class background. But even for students who are not inhibited by their undue deference, I have found that some are inhibited by the relationship – especially if I know them well, they do not want to make the relationship seem instrumenal (even though, to some extent, it is – they NEED a professor to know them well enough to write them a letter, and if I am that professor they shouldn’t waste that opportunity). So sometimes, indeed increasingly often these days, I pre-empt the request by pointing out to a student that I am in a good position to write them a letter, and say that when the time comes I will be happy to do it. This is especially important, I think, for working class, and especially minority working class, students who find it difficult to ask, and are not necessarily being urged by their parents to build the relationships with professors that yield letters. It usually works. If a student does ask and seems embarrassed I always point out to them that (though I am entirely untrained) it is my job to write letters, but then add that I would be glad to do it even if it weren’t my job. I still regret, quite a bit, letting one student whom I knew was going to be reluctant to ask for a letter get to the point just before I offered (she wasn’t quite as reluctant as I’d thought, and beat me by about a minute!)

6. I frequently help them manage other requests – by telling them, for example, to offer the relevant materials, and make sure they at least have a brief chat about their trajectories with the potential writers.

7. I do decline sometimes, but pretty much never for reasons of time – I decline if I really don’t know the student and can’t get to know him/her in the time, or if I think they’d be making a mistake going into the profession. It’s very rare that someone asks me for a letter to do something I really think they cannot do well in.

Here’s a fairness issue. Most relationships a faculty member has with a student are student-initiated. On a campus like mine students from less advantaged backgrounds are less likely, on average, to build relationships with faculty that will give them access to the letter writing advantage that a faculty member can give them. Not because they are academically weaker, or any less deserving, but because they have different habits and expectations. Shouldn’t faculty go out of their way not only to be available to those students but to initiate interactions liable to lead to the kind of familiarity that makes letter writing natural and easy? If you think so, how do you do that (or how was it done for you)?

Comment away.

(I was prompted to write this by a conversation yesterday with an administrator who used to be in arts and humanities teaching, and expressed dismay that she, like I, was often the lead writer for a student applying to Medical school – because those students get to know their breadth professor (or whoever) better than any of their major teachers. Same happens to me with business students: I’m not complaining, but it always strikes me as not good that I know them better than any of their major professors do).



Chris Grant 11.29.16 at 4:07 pm

“Please comment in whatever way seems useful”

Laughter is the best medicine, and these old jokes still brighten my day:

Ambiguous Recommendations


Martin Holterman 11.29.16 at 4:13 pm

This is such a cultural thing. I’ve only once needed a letter of recommendation in my life, since in my country (or indeed in any country I’ve lived in) they are not common practice. Fortunately, when the time came (I was applying for the EUI), my masters supervisor was English, and he wrote me a letter so long and generous that it made me blush. (It’s a Calvinist thing. We don’t do praise well.)

I have at times written recommendations – I wrote one only last week – but I always worry that I’ll end up pitching the tone (etc.) wrong because I’m not sufficiently familiar with the concept. I.e. what’s the appropriate set of words to use to convey that you really do think someone is very good? Given that letters of recommendation typically (in my experience) err on the side of more praise, I always worry that I’m not being positive enough to do the person justice.


Neville Morley 11.29.16 at 7:52 pm

My experience in the U.K. is that I’m asked to write such letters less and less often, other than for those students going on to further study or into teaching, as most employers have shifted to tick-box pro forma references with only a tiny box for (optional) additional comments. This makes me rather sad, but it is undeniably less work – especially as the introduction of anonymous marking means that I no longer have easy access to any sort of database of essay feedback.


Alan White 11.29.16 at 10:16 pm

I really like your suggestions for student’s input for a letter–I’ve always just relied on my interactions with them, and that can be a richer or poorer experience (too much) depending on the student. Wish I’d read this 30 years ago!

Have you read Julie Schumacher’s Dear Committee Members? (I bet you have.) For anyone interested, it’s a novel mostly consisting of letters of recommendation written by a senior English faculty member. Hilarious and quite poignant by turn. A must read in my view.


Gabriel Pomerand 11.30.16 at 12:25 am

Is this different from being asked for ‘a reference’? (I’m in the UK.) The thoughtful, reflective and genuine practice you describe sounds oceans away from my own experience. I never write more than a couple of paragraphs about a student, generally using a set of stock phrases; I often have to check back over old essays to remind me who the student actually was and what I thought about him or her. My references are always positive, of course; the art is to frame any criticisms or cautions in superficially laudatory language, on the assumption that whoever reads the reference will be equally skilled in decoding it. (Yes, this does go on.) Writing references for really good students is a positive pleasure – that much I recognise – but the end result will still be pretty formulaic. It’s a tool, not a poem.


Dave 11.30.16 at 1:04 am

When I ran our graduate program in biological sciences, I looked at hundreds of letters each year. Your advice would have improved many of these. A few additional thoughts: I always found it helpful if the letter writer included a short description of their own qualifications so that I could get a sense of their experience and perspective in evaluation. This was best done when unobtrusive relative to the analysis of the prospective student. It was also helpful if the student being evaluated was placed in context of other students who had gone on to graduate school, in addition to a description of their relative academic performance.


Meredith 11.30.16 at 6:00 am

Sweet and true, your points here. I’d add: offer, especially to less sophisticated students, to read their cover letters and/or essays. Not to re-write for them, of course, but (a whole new level of advising, about how to present oneself )…. In general, ask for even rough drafts of same, to be able to direct our own letters in sync with their drift…. Not to grift anyone, just to get a better sense of the student’s goals. That way you can keep being a teacher, even as you (hopefully) “hand off” a student.

The fairness issue interests me. I am “dealing” right now with a bright and wonderful graduate student in an ancillary discipline to mine. He is doing not so great in my area, though he will need to do well in it for the next stage he hopes to go onto. But I know he is able! Anyway, in my meeting with him in a couple of days, I will OFFER to write a letter of rec, to explain our intensive course, many other things. This is just one example: we need to think when the initiative needs to be OURS. That unsolicited offer of a letter can transform a life.


NR 11.30.16 at 2:40 pm

Just out of curiosity, have you had opportunity to read recommendation letters from other disciplines than philosophy? And if so, do you notice any discipline-wise patterns in letter writing?

I don’t have nearly as much experience with this as you, but for weird reasons I’ve read a fair number of letters from different nationalities (US, British, French, German, and Indian). US letters are, true to stereotype, the most hyperbolic (which is not to say lacking in substance). British letters are generally the same, but less hyperbolic (with the younger generation of professors moving more towards the US pattern). I haven’t seen nearly as many French or German letters, but some recurrent patterns emerged even in my small sample. Where US letters stress the originality of the candidate’s work (this for postdoc applications), the French appear to phrase their compliments in terms of the applicant’s “subtlety,” and also, interestingly, their politeness. A unique feature of German recommendation letters, so far as I’ve seen, is that they not infrequently seek to reassure readers that the candidate knows their place and will not challenge established hierarchies.


MDH 11.30.16 at 3:34 pm

To Martin @2 re: appropriate and sufficiently positive words. In letters that I write, I mainly let truthful comparatives do most of that work. For example, “her paper was among the best of all students [that year] / [that have ever taken the course],” “compared to her student colleagues her questions and comments demonstrated both a more thorough and more critical engagement with the material,” and “during [a particularly tricky part of the course] she showed an uncommon ability to anticipate applications to [other thing] and thereafter actively pursued those interests in her term paper.” If I don’t have the ability to say several things like this about a student I may decline the request.

The other part is positively indicating her preparation for the program to which she’s applying. So I take pains to link what I believe are her strengths to those factors which putatively predict success. In practice, there can be no reservations on those points — even any waffling can be interpreted too negatively given that other applicants’ may have over-fawning letters. I almost always use a line like, “I have absolutely no reservations about [student’s] ability to succeed at [program] and believe, given her [short summary of strengths] she is bound excel there.” Alternatively, when I more familiar with the program or field to which she is applying, I may frame this in terms that the student will be an asset to the program. That she is a good fit, exactly the type of student they’re looking for, for whom their investment in her training is most likely to be of benefit. Along those lines, if you sincerely believe a student to be limited in some way, proposing how she is well-poised to benefit from the additional training / experience the program can provide in that area is an appropriately positive spin on this. Indeed, I wouldn’t express it any other way.


Alan White 11.30.16 at 3:35 pm


I strongly second your last point. Over my career I’ve made it a habit to offer, unsolicited, that I would gladly write a recommendation for students who do impressive work. Most seem very pleasantly surprised that I would offer–and many–I have one to do now–eventually take me up on that.


Kara 11.30.16 at 4:36 pm

Hey Harry! I think you make some great points, and after reflecting on my previous relationships with professors, I think I have come to realize some of those points that led me to initiate more of a relationship with them. Now I have never been shy about creating relationships with professors but there definitely were subtle things my professors have done to indicate an interest in me and my work. Commenting on papers was one of those things. I was specifically taken aback once when a professor mine commented that a point I made was extremely eye-opening and one that he had never previously considered. That obviously gave me a confidence boost to delve deeper into conversation with him, and it also gave him a specific talking point to initiate with me. When work is clearly appreciated or recognized, I think that creates a nice bridge from academics into what can eventually become a more personal relationship. Hope that helps!


Lynne 11.30.16 at 7:56 pm

Harry, it sounds as though you are happy to recommend all your students. Is this true? Back in the ice age when I was a student (undergrad then grad) and needed letters, it was for competitive grants, and I was careful to couch my request for letters in such a way that the prof could refuse—this was on the advice of one prof who pointed out that I wouldn’t want a lukewarm left-handed compliment kind of letter. (He was happy to write an enthusiastic letter).


Harry 11.30.16 at 8:46 pm

I’d second everything MDH said, and do all of those things. And the point about reservations is right — as a reader of recs I interpret reservations quite negatively, and have observed colleagues doing that even more than I do, so I avoid them. Better not to say something than sound like you are damning with faint praise. I do think that is cultural — letter writing is like any other practice, shrouded in cultural context. Just as much humour doesn’t travel well, similarly many letters don’t.

I haven’t read lots of letters from other disciplines no — except in tenure cases (on divisional committees). So academic letters — they vary enormously by discipline! Its staggering. Philosophers detail arguments, and are critical, and know that other philosophers will take their criticisms as positive (saying that you think X is entirely mistaken about her substantive views and explaining why is not uncommon, and is entirely consistent with saying and meaning and being understood to mean that she is the best thing since sliced bread). English — they lavish with praise in a way that is a bit strange to me….

Dear Committee Members is great. Interesting how often it comes up!

Hi Kara! Are you in Austin? Thanks, that is helpful.

Lynne — well, it depends. I think our students — or at least, those that I end up teaching — are, by and large, remarkably un-entitled, and I get very few inappropriate requests, and none which don’t make it easy for me to say no. A student for whom I recently submitted a bunch of letters persisted in saying that she really appreciated it and that I didn’t have to do it, despite that I’ve known her 4 years and told her in the first year I expected her to ask me for one.

If I really can’t say good enough things I will say no — I don’t want to write lukewarm refs. And if I think the student should not be going in that direction I will at the very least try to get them to reconsider (though sometimes they keep on in the direction, and I write a good letter).

I can’t overemphasize how stressful and delicate this can be on the student side of things. A student (senior, aiming for Law School) came to me very early in a class not long ago asking for a letter for Law School, even though I didn’t know her well yet, giving me plenty of lead time though to get to know her. She was very anxious because she had had quite weird interactions with a professor whom she had thought was going to write her a letter but whom, after the weird interactions, she no longer trusted (with good reason, I thought). She was on the ball about it, and had time, and was lucky frankly that she felt able to ask me for the rec. I have to say I am sure there are things all of us to that make one or another student uneasy or distrustful; its something to guard against, not guarantee against.


Ingrid Robeyns 11.30.16 at 11:38 pm

Harry (and everyone else), what do you think of students who apply for prestigious PhD programmes and do NOT wave the right to see the letter of reference that you are writing for them? To my mind, that seems like not a wise thing to do, since the school you’re applying for will know that the professor writing the letter will be much more careful in weighing their words, and hence that they may not receive more balanced information that they would possibly receive in case a student would wave their rights. But since I tend to only write letters for UK, Canadian or US universities, I’d be interested to hear what those of you more familiar with the system think of students not waving their rights to see the letters you are writing for them. Perhaps it’s a common practice that I am not aware of.


Harry 12.01.16 at 12:19 am

I insist on them waiving the right to see the letter. I don’t know whether it really makes much difference to a reader of recommendations (I confess, it is not something I check up on as a reader), but I find it very hard to write a letter to one person knowing that someone else (who it is about, but to whom it is not addressed) will see it. I want to devote myself to writing them a letter that will help them without thinking about the effects that reading it would have on them. Sometimes I say things about students that they are not ready to hear (sometimes very positive things, which they will hear from me at a moment that I calculate it will be particularly good for them to hear them); sometimes I want to make comparisons with other students (which they are not entitled to hear); but even when neither of those are true I know it will take me much longer to write the letter, and I have plenty of letters to write.

If you don’t trust someone to write you a helpful letter there are two possible reasons. Either you worry that they don’t think well of you (or will not seem to think well of you), in which case the right response is, if possible, to find someone else (as the student I referred to in my earlier comment did); or you think they are not competent in which case the right response might be to find someone else, or might be to help them in the ways I have hinted at above — give them the materials that I would ask for.


Ingrid Robeyns 12.01.16 at 12:29 am

thanks, Harry, you nailed it. Of course, I don’t know whether these top universities will take it into account that the student didn’t wave their right to see the letter, but if someone in the assessment committee sees it, it can’t possibly have a good effect.
As to the reasons why some students may not wave their rights, a third reason might simply be ignorance about the entire system. In my experience, continental European Students applying for graduate school in the UK/US/Canada often have no idea of what the prevailing norms, standards and habits are. They often know absolutely no-one who has gone through that foreign system, and even the international office may not always be very helpful in giving advice.


Plarry 12.01.16 at 1:50 am

I’m writing from the sciences here. When I read a letter for graduate school, I want to know what the letter writer thinks about their ability to do research, and to transition from an undergraduate to a graduate student. So when I write a letter, I try to answer those questions. I suspect my letters don’t differ significantly from what’s been described previously, except that if the student has prior research experience (almost required to get into a top school in the US these days), then I will describe it in some detail. I will also usually do a peer comparison; particularly if we have had other students go to the graduate school in question before, I think it’s helpful for the reader to get some sense of where a student ranks, insofar as it’s possible to make comparisons across years.


Greg Koos 12.01.16 at 2:26 am

I’ve been looking at the notion of how do you trust anyone in a frontier community, when no one really knows anyone else. Letters of recommendation/introduction is one way. Here is my favorite letter.
“We the undersigned herebye certify to whom it may concern that we have been acquainted personally with James Allin of the County of Dearborn and State of Indiana for a number of years; and as far as any of us have had dealing with him we have always found him upright and honest in the same; We could further state that he has uniformly supported the character of a peaceable, orderly citizen and one who wishes to have good order Established on Society – and further we give it as our opinion from our knowledge of his character that as a friend firm and cincere and as a neighbor humane and benevolent.”

November 15, 1819.


caesaigh 12.01.16 at 4:47 am

Long-time listener, first-time caller…

I was mentored by one of The Names in Political Science. His approach to LOR (which I hated at the time) was to have the requester write the letter they wanted written. I realized a few years ago that s/he was on to something – no one knows you better than you. I follow this practice assiduously, as well as the earlier comments about a) not penning a missive on behalf of an unknown, and b) if you ask, you cannae see what I write.

There are of course drawbacks to this:
It was noted that there are some who are uncomfortable with the request.
I would add as well the issue of the WMP repeat requester who feels entitled to a letter – and the pangs such a quite possibly sincere request might beget.

So I would counsel – caution, familiarity, distance, avuncularity.


Neville Morley 12.01.16 at 7:14 am

Interesting re student waiving right to see letter. This may be UK-specific, but my understanding is that, in event (very unlikely, admittedly) that student submitted a formal Freedom of Information request to the institution that’s asked for the reference, they could see it regardless of whether they’ve previously waived that right. I write all references on the assumption that they *might* be seen by the subject; if there are things I want to say with which they might not be happy, I’d decline request (or make it clear that I couldn’t be uniformly positive, if they insist that they still want me to do it), and give strong indication in letter that I’d be happy to follow up by phone.


Finn 12.01.16 at 7:58 am

On a campus like mine students from less advantaged backgrounds are less likely, on average, to build relationships with faculty that will give them access to the letter writing advantage that a faculty member can give them.

At the end of my three-year Bachelor’s degree, there is not a single faculty member I could have asked for a recommendation. Indeed, I would be surprised if any of them had known my name.

That I knew my lecturers better after further study is almost entirely a function of the smaller class sizes.


Z 12.01.16 at 9:35 am

I enjoy writing letters of recommendation

I don’t. I find the whole concept very dubious, in fact, because I don’t quite see how it is normally the case (in the statistical sense) that the measurable qualities of a candidate would be in question and yet at the same time the trustworthiness of the letter wouldn’t be. I mean, either the candidate has an academic background and work to show and the committee is qualified to and interested in evaluating it in which case a letter is quite dispensable or this is not the case, in which case I fail to see how the committee could be qualified to and interested in ascertaining the value of the letter. Or, likewise, how can it be normally the case within a functional system that two candidates are hard to distinguish based on measurable qualities yet their respective letters distinguish them?

Of course, there are exceptions: a very strong candidate from an institution which has the reputation of very lax standards (high grades are normally not to be trusted but the letter can make it clear that in that particular case, they can be), or an applicant from a different system (the letter can make clear how to interpret some academic information), or a statistically exceptional applicant (for a variety of reasons).

But in the normal functioning of normal academic and professional life, I fail to see how the little supplementary information the letter carries about the personal and singular qualities of the applicant is not dwarfed by the variation in style, tone, effort, talent, social skills, integration within the system, influence and standards of the writer of the letter; not to mention of course the very strong suspicion of mutual social reinforcements with all the undesirable effects for applicants with low social capital to begin with. Far better in my view to strive for high standards of evaluation than to ask for n letters of recommendations.

So I would expect letters to be very bad tools in order to effectively recruit qualified applicants and indeed, I remember reading (via the orgtheory blog if memory serves) a study (conducted on medical students, again if memory serve) showing that the quality of letters of recommendation had in fact a slight negative correlation with the quality of the future performance of the candidate.

Or perhaps the failure in my reasoning is in assuming the system is generally functional and transmits objectively interpretable messages, but if that is not so, I fail to see how falling back on the supposed personal virtue of the writers can help (can it really be the case, for instance, that grades are meaningless yet at the same time the personal evaluation of the grader is meaningful?).


Plarry 12.01.16 at 2:48 pm

Z @ 22: Letters are extremely important differentiators. Of course there are issues of trustworthiness, but when you have candidates that are within the margins of uncertainty by other measures, which also have potential trust concerns, you gather all pieces of information that you can. In the sciences, these pieces of information can often be revealed in the letters. In addition, at my University, and most others that I’m aware of, we now conduct phone interviews of promising candidates. The letters and personal statements provide important repositories to plumb as a basis to conduct a phone conversation.


Collin Street 12.01.16 at 8:19 pm

I insist on them waiving the right to see the letter.

I recently — two weeks ago? — got a letter-of-recommendation written for me for a job application: brilliant letter, carefully identifying my strengths that played to the job’s requirements and not mentioning my weaknesses that didn’t. [as in: I couldn’t have written it better myself.]

But it contained a rather large factual error, because the person writing it misunderstood certain parts of my history. Easy-fixed, but only because I looked at it before sending it off. I urge you, please: consider this possibility going forward.


John Thorp 12.02.16 at 1:37 pm

On the fairness question.

My department has a rule that all essays must be submitted to the plagiarism-detector Turnitin. When I tell students they must comply with this rule, I explain that it’s not that I suspect them of dishonesty; it’s rather that Turnitin is an easy filing-system for me when, in a year or two, they ask me to write a letter of recommendation. Thus they all know, from early on, that it’s well within the normal course of things that I would eventually be writing a letter for them. I think this helps.


Z 12.02.16 at 2:07 pm

Plarry@23. Gathering information is good and phone interviews are (I believe) a very good way to gather information. Letters of recommendation? I have a hunch that not so much compared to variations among writers and some studies at least agree.



oldster 12.02.16 at 5:32 pm

When you write on teaching, Harry, you always make me feel like I was such a crap teacher.

Probably because, compared to you, I was such a crap teacher.

Good thing I’m out of the game now.


Harry 12.02.16 at 6:55 pm

oldster — I am sure you are wrong about that. But… whenever I read or hear interesting and thoughtful discussions about teaching, I feel the same way (not that I am crap, but that I am nowhere near good enough) and I think that’s probably a healthy response!


Harry 12.02.16 at 7:01 pm

On Z’s point — in a way, it is irrelevant to me as a letter writer because I am bound to write them and know that they will be taken into account, and might well make the difference. I am never dishonest, and I think the best way to represent the student is by really telling the reader who he/she is.
But — the comment about phone interviews prompted me to think about phone references I have given. When I talk to an HR person who is asking me about a student, even though I basically know the questions ahead of time, I think the person on the other end can pick up a lot from my tone of voice, and I know that I do not speak the way I write. Of course, those are always enthusiastic, because they are always for a finalist/ But I am sure that they learn a lot when they ask about the candidate’s weakness — because I do not volunteer those in my LORs (for reasons implied above) — and my hesitations and tone probably tell a lot (as does what I say).


Harry 12.03.16 at 2:23 am

“When I write a letter I view myself as an advocate for the person, not as a gate-keeper for the school”
Right — me too.


Paul Hubert 12.03.16 at 9:38 am

In the UK referees owe a duty of care to the subject of the reference and to the recipient. As alluded to above there is also the possibility that the subject has a legal right (under the Data Protection Act, not FoI) to see the reference by subject access request to the recipient even if it has ‘confidential’ emblazoned on it. These factors serve to make the business of writing one an anxious business. In my experience many students don’t feel able to ask in good time and many academic colleagues for whatever reason prove curiously unable to remember anything about students or willing to put any time whatever into filling the gap. Accordingly although what Harry my feeling is that the system mostly doesn’t work to communicate anything meaningful that isn’t already communicated by a transcript.
I should add that my institution has policy against giving any information of this kind orally (by ‘phone) because of the possibilities of abuse and allegations of abuse.

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