Why “Ghost Writing” Your Professor’s Letter of Rec Shouldn’t be A Scary Thing


If you’re reading this article, odds are you’re thinking about how you can secure a quality letter of recommendation, be it from an employer, professor, or other supervisor. But what about the instances that call for the letter to be penned by a more unlikely source: you?

For many students approaching applications to graduate degree programs, this can be the scariest story of all:

Turning on my Macbook Pro, I hover my mouse hesitantly over the e-mail icon with my stomach tightening in familiar knots. The last few days I had been logging in to my school account compulsively. On Monday I had emailed a professor in hopes of securing a quality letter of recommendation, and although it was only early Thursday morning, each passing day had felt like an eternity. What if they said no? What if they read my request to a colleague and laughed? What if they never reply and I sit here refreshing my browser until I’m 100 and all opportunities and my life had passed me by?

Closing my eyes briefly, I sighed and clicked on the inbox.

There it was.

My professor, who I had initially approached with great confidence (a confidence which had waned with each passing day) had replied to my request in the early hours of the morning.

My stomach clenched as I double tapped the subject line.

I scanned the short message quickly, feeling both relieved and disappointed. A bit confused too.

“Hi Madison,

I’d be happy to help with your letter of recommendation. Why don’t you draft it and send it to me and I’ll sign it.

Professor X”

They want me to do what?

I read the message again trying to guess at the reason behind this unorthodox request. I’ve never heard of someone ghostwriting their own recommendation letter before. Am I being tested? Is this ethical? Doesn’t this compromise some academic code of conduct that professors and staff had drilled into my head these past three years?

Surely my professor is not asking I endorse myself. I mean, isn’t the point of a letter of recommendation that it come from someone, anyone, other than yourself?

Unsure of what to do next, I turned to my most trusted source and consultant: Google.

It turns out I am not alone in this ethical academic dilemma. I was flooded with responses from others who, like me, had been asked to draft their own letter of recommendation.

As I began to read about other experiences like mine, I realized that I could make this scenario work for me. This didn’t need to be another stressor, but a golden opportunity to be sure the recommendation said exactly what I needed it to. I had faith in my abilities to write about my achievements and involvements at school, and could probably write about them in greater detail and familiarity than my professor ever could. After all, didn’t I know all the ins-and-outs of my academic experiences, their impact, and my qualifications?

If you’re reading this article, you’re probably in a similar situation. Well, fear not. There are many solutions to this potentially anxiety-inducing scenario. Don’t forget: while it’s perfectly okay to clarify with the professor what information they would need to write your letter themselves, keep in mind that they are likely very busy (hence them delegating this task to you) and that many of your questions regarding format, style, and structure can be addressed online.

That being said, you have three options in this dilemma:

1. Refuse

Firstly, know you can always say no. If you are really uncomfortable with the aspect of writing your own letter, it is best to discuss this with your professor (ideally, in person). Explain your concerns, offer to provide them with more information about your academic experience and accolades, and respectfully request that they reconsider. Even if they still refuse to write your recommendation, you may be able to negotiate some sort of middle-ground with both contributing certain elements (such as the following point).

 2. Provide bullet points

This solution is often acceptable when professors ask for a draft of the recommendation. You can provide them with the necessary data in point form, and the professors can craft the letter keeping these points in mind while using their own voice and nuances.

Be sure to include:

  • Your full name, student number, the class that you took with that professor, and how well you performed (hopefully, you performed well if you are seeking recommendation from this professor)
  • The skills and qualities you think you have demonstrated (of course these should be relevant to your career/academic objectives). Ideally you should be able to link these to your specific performances in class.
  • Work you produced that was well received by the professor (include the mark and the assignment)
  • Include a resume or CV to give the professor an idea of the extracurricular activities you’re involved in.

It is also a good idea to provide the professor with any descriptions related to the position or opportunity you are applying for. Additionally, you could include your own “statement” in the materials you provide, so that the professor has a better idea of your own motivations for applying and can play to your unique objectives.

3. Write your own letter
Writing your own letter probably seems the most daunting of these options, but it also has the potential for the greatest payoff. When writing the draft, keep a sense of “voice” in mind. Be sure that the tone is appropriate and speaks in a style consistent with that of your professor. Consider the following points:

Tips for Writing a Letter of Recommendation:

1. Relationship: Firstly, keep in mind that this letter is from the professor/employer’s point of view. State the purpose of the letter and provide details on the specific school and course you took with the professor. You should also clarify the professor’s relationship to you, the student. Finally, describe traits or qualities you believe you demonstrate in your relationship to the professor or your peers. Are you personable, a group-leader, intellectual, or always seeking to improve or to help? Speaking on behalf of a professor might feel a bit awkward, but don’t forget that ultimately they will have final say over what is kept or removed from this drafted edition.For example: As the Dean of Students at TalentEgg University, I am writing on behalf of Henrietta Clarkson, whom I have known these past three years and whom I am pleased to recommend for the position of Accounting Assistant at Top Tier Firms.

2. Strengths and Relevant Examples: In this next section of the letter, speak to your distinctive skills, traits, or qualities. Try and craft a memorable impression by avoiding cliches, and present these superlatives it in a way that is consistent with the professor’s style of speaking. Be sure to back up these strengths with concrete and specific examples, such as exams, term papers, presentations, or group work.

For example: Through her involvement as a course Teaching Assistant, Henrietta demonstrated a great aptitude towards course material and compassion towards her peers by always making herself available for additional voluntary tutoring. Henrietta’s drive and skill in teaching saw her tutorial frequently outperform those of her colleagues.

3. Strengths Applicable to Opportunity: Having written previously about how your strengths and abilities have been proven by past accomplishments, it is a good idea to highlight how these skills can be applied to the opportunity for which you are applying.

4. Summarize and conclude: The last section of your letter of recommendation should provide a brief summary of the points you have made and highlight your qualifications in a way that is brief, succinct, and consistent. You could also use this last section to include contact information, though you should first receive permission from your professor before including this to be sure they are comfortable with this arrangement. Finally sign off!

For example: Henrietta has proven a dependable leader and a valuable support to her teams, and a curious and keen intellectual in the classroom. Should you wish to inquire further about her qualifications, please feel free to contact me at XXX.XXX.XXXX. or F.McDonald@TEU.ca.

Writing your own letter of recommendation can seem like a daunting (and at the very least, awkward) task, but its benefits are great. It’s a chance to humble-brag about your accomplishment without looking like, well, a humble-braggart. More often than not, professors see having students write their own letters as a win-win scenario. You get some control over a perfectly crafted letter, while they maintain final say over what is included and what is removed.

Good luck, ghost writer and happy Halloween!