Your boss, mentor, and good friend has agreed to write letters of recommendation to three business schools on your behalf. You shrewdly have prepared a package of information for her: your resume, a summary of each program’s values, excellent quotes from reviews, the questions she will respond to for each school, and the deadlines for the letters. When you give her the information six weeks before the letter is due, she gives the packet a funny look, swallows hard, and acknowledges receipt.
Three weeks later, you email your boss to ask her if she has made any progress on the letters. “I’ve thought about them,” she emails back.
Another week goes by, and you call her, “How’s it going?”
“Look,” she says, “I really want to help you, but I am swamped. You write them, and I’ll sign them. You know what should be in them, and I simply don’t have the time to work on them now. I still really want to help you, but I didn’t realize that the letters would be so demanding or that I would have this new project dumped on me.”
This topic came up at the Tuck Conference for Educational Consultants that I attended in June at Dartmouth. The Tuck admissions committee strongly condemned, as do most schools, the widespread practice of applicants writing letters for supervisors’ signatures. They condemned it on an ethical level, which I disagree with, and also on a substantive level, where I must admit they have a point.
The letters are supposed to confirm data found in your application and provide a fresh perspective on your application. If you write the letter, your letter does a poor job of the former and fails entirely at the latter.
At the Tuck Conference, one of the consultants, Luvy Gonzalez, said that when her client is confronted with this situation, she tells her client to invite the recommender out to lunch, take the recommendation questions along, and interview the recommender by asking him or her the questions found in the form. The applicant jots down the recommender’s answers, drafts the letter containing the recommender’s answers, and gives it to the recommender for signature.
The resulting letter really is the recommender’s, and yet he or she doesn’t have to take the time to write it. It contains that other perspective that the adcom values so highly and is authentic. If you make good use of the interview notes, the recommendation will also have the recommender’s voice.
The Tuck adcom members present when this suggestion was made didn’t comment, but they also didn’t object.