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Ask The Ethicist

My question concerns letters of recommendation into graduate school.

If I ask someone to write a letter of recommendation for me to get into grad school, and they say: “Write it yourself, then I’ll sign it,” how far down the ethical slope have I traveled if I do write this letter, but under the following conditions: a) the letter itself, written by me, is truthful in content and contains no false statements (except when I say I am someone else) or exaggerations; b) the letter is read closely by the signer for accuracy and proximity to the signer’s own ideas; c) the letter may or may not matter in the selection process and could either be a more or less articulate of saying the same thing that the signer would write.

If I were to answer the question myself, I definitely would say I would be unethical in this case, certainly in an absolute sense; however, I feel the letter might be so similar to what the signer would have written, and maybe much less enthusiastic than what the signer could have said, that in the end I say I would gain no real advantage. But how can I say? If I were to go through with this and mail a graduate office a ghostwritten letter, I believe the ethical thing to do would be to withdraw my application.
Thanks- MT in North Carolina

Jordan Moiers replies:

Dear MT,

If the person you ask for a letter requests it, there’s nothing unethical about ghostwriting your own letter of recommendation (unless a university explicitly forbids it, but I’ll get back to that in a moment). No one knows your accomplishments better than you. Why should you rely on the potentially faulty memory of someone else when it comes to something as important as furthering your education?

You have to assume, of course, that the person you’re approaching for the letter will diligently read the recommendation, and will be ready to make any necessary corrections (striking out the line about your ability to leap tall buildings, while adding in the Nobel Prize you forgot to mention). The most effective references often come from the most productive and accomplished people you know. But productive people are busy, which means that they may not have the time to write the recommendation letter you deserve even if they’re willing to make the attempt.

Grad program administrators should be interested in getting the best possible candidates into their programs, not in testing the writing skills of the people recommending you. There are some graduate schools with application guidelines that specifically forbid ghostwritten recommendation letters. Those institutions, however, are misguided in their quest for the moral high ground. They make a demand that they can’t possibly verify or enforce, ensuring that anyone willing to violate the guidelines has an advantage over those who obey the rules. What an excellent filter to help eliminate the most upstanding prospects. It may be a great way to select law students, but not so good in the sciences where ethics are a vital ingredient of good research.

There’s nothing preventing your reference from modifying your letter or discarding it altogether and starting from scratch. For all you know, that glowing, ghostwritten masterpiece could have inspired your reference to whip out a quick note about your hubris and delusions of grandeur, which they discovered upon reading your draft of the recommendation letter. The only ethical breach in the process would occur if your reference was unwilling to scrap a ghostwritten letter when necessary.