About This Guide
Students at the University of Michigan are among the brightest and most competitive students in the nation. Upon graduation many of them will secure employment with coveted organizations while others will continue their studies at prestigious institutions of higher learning. The ability of UM students and graduates to market themselves successfully and competitively is linked, in part, to the efforts of UM faculty and staff who support their application processes by writing reference letters on their behalf. For some students, possessing a high quality reference letter may be an essential factor in the admission to a school of their choice.
To facilitate the collection and transmittal of reference letters, The Career Center offers a Reference Letter Service for housing letters for all UM students and graduates. Letters may be forwarded to schools and employers at the file holder’s request. As the official repository of reference letters for all UM students and graduates, we receive numerous inquiries from faculty, Graduate Student Instructors (GSIs), and staff members in regard to legal and ethical issues surrounding reference letter writing and transmittal. Our sustained relationships with graduate and professional schools’ admissions officers and recruiters keep us informed about what these parties expect to read in reference letters. Our consultations with UM General Counsel provide the legal and ethical parameters that should be observed in crafting high quality letters.
These guidelines were written by The Career Center and reviewed by the Office of General Counsel. The Career Center is a unit in the Division of Student Affairs. The publisher’s written permission is required to reproduce or transmit all or part of these guidelines. ©1992, revised 2005, 2007, and 2010.
The Regents of the University of Michigan
Mark J. Bernstein, Julia Donovan Darlow, Laurence B. Deitch, Shauna Ryder Diggs, Denise Ilitch, Andrea Fischer Newman, Andrew C. Richner, Katherine E. White, Mary Sue Coleman, ex officio.
The University of Michigan, as an equal opportunity/affirmative action employer, complies with all applicable federal and state laws regarding nondiscrimination and affirmative action. The University of Michigan is committed to a policy of equal opportunity for all persons and does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, national origin, age, marital status, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, disability, religion, height, weight, or veteran status in employment, educational programs and activities, and admissions. Inquiries or complaints may be addressed to the Senior Director for Institutional Equity, and Title IX/Section 504/ADA Coordinator, Office of Institutional Equity, 2072 Administrative Services Building, Ann Arbor, Michigan 48109-1432, 734-763-0235, TTY 734-647-1388. For other University of Michigan information call 734-764-1817.
- Prior to Writing the Letter
- Writing the Letter
- Reference Letters for Law & Medical Schools
- Common Problems Found in Reference Letters
- Legal and Ethical Considerations
- Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA)
- Michigan Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)
- Anti-Discrimination Laws and Regulations
- Disclosure of Reference Letters
- Irregularities and Misconduct
Prior to agreeing to compose a reference letter, it may be helpful to:
- Establish honestly and directly whether or not you are able to write a positive letter on behalf of the student. If limited knowledge of the student’s talents or a negative impression would prevent you from providing a positive letter, you should discuss the issues with the student at the onset. This clarification may encourage the student to pursue other sources or initiate a conversation that may address your concerns. Once you have established that the student still desires a letter from you, you must maintain the integrity of the process by personally writing the letter rather than simply signing a student-composed letter. However, requesting ideas from the student with regard to areas of focus is acceptable and often helpful.
- Ask the student for a resume, personal statement, transcript, even a picture (as a visual aid to jog your memory) or whatever additional materials may assist you in crafting your letter. If possible, a meeting between you and the student should be arranged to discuss specific academic and career goals.
- To comply with FERPA, obtain the student’s written permission before serving as a reference. The Career Center’s Reference Letter Service forms include a complete disclosure statement that students sign, i.e., the appropriate Evaluation Form. However, when providing a verbal reference, having the student’s written permission may be especially critical.
- Consider the advantages of co-signing a letter. Faculty members and graduate student instructors are often inundated with requests for reference letters. In turn, students may debate whether to pursue the “status” of a faculty letter in lieu of more personalized comments by a GSI. Co-signed letters serve the student’s needs while providing a creative solution to pressing workloads. You should refrain from asking students to compose their own letters submitted under your signature.
Admissions committees have suggested the following guidelines:
- Limit reference letters to 1-2 pages in length.
- Indicate the capacity or setting in which you know the student (e.g., classroom, lab, co-curricular, work) as well as the length of time and the quality of the interaction.
- Frame your comments within the context of the student’s purpose for the letter—for example, graduate school admission vs. employment.
- Provide comments that are objective, eliminating as much subjective information as possible.
- Refrain from commenting on general moral character so as not to risk any claims of defamation.
- Support your views regarding the student’s strengths, talents as well as areas for growth with evidence and concrete examples.
- If you are aware of extenuating circumstances that impacted the student’s academic progress, obtain the student’s written permission to disclose that information.
Graduate school admissions committees have indicated that they are particularly interested in learning the context in which writers are evaluating the students (e.g., level of course difficulty, grading criteria, ranking among all students in a class or even in your academic career). Your assessment of the student’s attributes, such as scholarship, future intellectual promise, consistency of performance, communication, social skills and work behaviors, are also deemed very valuable.
Employers may be interested in some of these same qualities but are also likely to expect information on specific abilities relevant to the position being sought. You may want to highlight areas such as writing ability, analytical skills, creativity, customer service orientation, persuasive skills, task orientation, teamwork, accountability, management and supervision.
The University of Michigan has one of the largest pre-medical and pre-law student populations in the country. Given the extremely competitive nature of law and, especially, of medical school application processes, reference letters from the faculty and teaching staffs are of the utmost importance. Generic and unfocused reference letters may negatively impact an otherwise viable UM applicant, and reflect negatively on the University’s commitment to the advanced education of the students.
Law and medical schools consistently indicate the most instrumental letters that guide their admission decisions share specific characteristics. They recommend the following:
- Provide substance. Include enough information to supplement your impression of the student, without overwhelming readers with lengthy details unrelated to the student’s application.
- Focus on qualitative information. Through application materials, admissions committees are privy to a variety of test scores and detailed academic records. You should concentrate on insights and perspectives about the student’s past performance and the promise to succeed in his/her chosen profession beyond what can be extrapolated from numerical credentials.
- Offer a balanced perspective on the student. Admissions committees appreciate letters that offer honest assessments by discussing strengths as well as some areas for growth. Committees are looking for qualified students with potential, not flawless, seemingly perfect applicants.
- Acknowledge information regarding infractions or questionable behavior. If you have been directly involved in a problematic situation with a student, you may choose to address it in your letter so that admissions committees have a better understanding of the surrounding circumstances and, in turn, may evaluate the student’s maturity and judgment as the student prepares to enter professional school.
- Address student’s extenuating circumstances and barriers, if applicable. Professional schools find it beneficial to gain the perspective of someone who knows an applicant well, especially in reference to possible challenges that the student has overcome. You, however, should be mindful of any potentially discriminatory references. For more information, please refer to the section on legal and ethical considerations.
- Produce typed, professional correspondence. Typed, signed letters on official letterhead with an individualized appearance showcase students positively. Recipients of handwritten letters have indicated that they are not only illegible, but detract markedly from the writer’s credibility and are often not read by admissions and search committees.
Medical schools admissions committees find it particularly useful when writers comment on the student’s motivation for a career in medicine, service to the community, research activities, love for learning, decision making skills, judgment, perseverance, empathy, tolerance, commitment, and multicultural awareness skills. The American Association of Medical Colleges (AAMC) has developed a set of guidelines on how to write effective reference letters in support of medical school application. See guidelines.
Law schools admissions committees favor letters that comment on communication, expository, negotiating and persuasion skills; research and analytical abilities; ability to work independently and complete projects on time; resourcefulness, patience and attention to detail; and leadership abilities inside and outside the classroom.
Here are some common problems that can detract from the overall usability of a reference letter and, in some cases, require The Career Center’s Reference Letter Service to return a letter to the writer. Letters may be returned if they:
- Contain school-specific references or are otherwise inappropriate for multiple audiences.
- Contain an incorrect spelling of the student’s name or multiple spellings of the name within the same letter.
- List multiple names in the body of the letter, a clear indication of an ill-fated cut and paste effort from a previously written letter.
- Use a nickname without first introducing the student’s legal name.
- Are typed on plain, white paper instead of letterhead.
- Are missing the writer’s signature and/or contact information.
- Lack the appropriate evaluation form indicating the student’s intention regarding the confidentiality status of the letter (at times students forget to provide the form, but often writers forget to include the evaluation form when returning the letter to the Reference Letter Service).
- Contain unsupported, over-enthusiastic or generic endorsements, instead of offering useful, balanced insights.
Although less frequent, the following occurrences are problematic, as they can also negatively impact a student’s candidacy. This is the case when letters:
- Concentrate on the writer and/or the class taught, with only a brief reference to the student.
- Consist of only one sentence or one paragraph simply confirming the completion of a class and the grade earned by the student.
- Disclose the student’s personal circumstances, especially in relation to illnesses or disability, without authorization or appropriate relevance.
- Lack clarity regarding the nature of the relationship between the writer and the student (e.g., personal, academic, or professional employment).
- Are typed but signed in pencil.
- Are illegible — due to poor handwriting or the medium used (pencil, gel pen, etc.).
- Are stained due to food, beverage, cigarette etc.
- Contain profanity.
- Evaluate both the student and his/her spouse or partner in one letter.
- Focus on personal information about the letter writer such as personal lifestyle, aspirations, or political views.
As with many aspects of higher education today, the issue of providing references for students has become increasingly complex, being shaped by legal and ethical parameters. Freedom of information regulations, anti-discrimination laws, and new modes for interacting with the world of work—such as electronic communication and working with third party recruiters—have reframed what is and is not permissible or wise to include in a reference. For information about legislation regulating reference letters refer to the following:
The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), more commonly referred to as the Buckley Amendment, is the federal regulation that protects the privacy of student records and reference files. FERPA ensures that:
- Students have the right to see the letters in their files unless they have waived access to the letters; they also have the right to a list of their file’s contents upon request.
- Students have the opportunity to voluntarily waive access to individual letters, knowing that most recipients (and especially admissions committees) attribute more credibility to confidential references as they are perceived to be more candid and genuine.
- Students must provide written consent prior to any release of their files to parties outside the university to ensure that they control the dissemination of information in their file. Note, however, that once the file is created it becomes the property of the University of Michigan.
The Michigan Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) provides public access to all University records unless those records are exempt by statute from inspection. The statute exempts student files protected by FERPA. The Reference Letter Service protects the confidentiality of reference files to the extent permitted by law, but would release student files if properly subpoenaed. Upon a FOIA request, the Reference Letter Service works with the University’s Freedom of Information Officer to protect access to reference letters to the extent possible, while remaining in compliance with FOIA and FERPA. The requester is referred directly to the Chief Freedom of Information Officer if clarification is needed.
In an effort to eliminate biased admissions and hiring practices, various state and federal laws prohibit reference to potentially discriminatory characteristics. Federal anti-discrimination laws do not unequivocally prohibit any reference to potentially discriminatory characteristics, such as race, national origin, religion, gender, physical disability, marital status or age. However, this is not to suggest that references to potentially discriminatory characteristics are totally immune from liability. Federal anti-discrimination laws operate to prevent the use of these characteristics where there is an intent to discriminate.
While federal anti-discrimination laws represent our nation’s commitment to the eradication of discrimination on the basis of classifications such as race, national origin, etc., there are also state laws in the Michigan Constitution, the Michigan’s Persons With Disabilities Civil Rights Act (PWDCRA) and the Elliot-Larsen Civil Rights Act, which operate under an analogous mandate.
Writing helpful, legally permissible reference letters involves striking a delicate balance. You are encouraged to provide as much information about the student as possible, within the context of legal parameters. This suggests that mentioning a student’s race, national origin, religion, gender, physical disability, marital status, or age, should be handled cautiously, if at all. The safest approach is to either refrain from including potentially discriminatory classifications or to obtain the student’s permission in writing before making any such references.
On a related note, if you are contacted by an employer requesting a list of students from your department by ethnic origin, gender or other protected selection criteria, you should be aware that it is illegal to selectively refer students in this way. While these requests are illegal and unethical, they are becoming increasingly more common as organizations compete to bring diversity into their workforces. If you receive this type of request, you are encouraged to contact The Career Center staff for assistance. Among other services, The Career Center regularly invites employers to recruit on campus at career and job fairs and will be able to assist employers in meeting their needs, the needs of the students, and also the requirements of the law.
Upon the student’s request, the Reference Letter Service will release letters to prospective employers, professional and graduate schools, and scholarship and fellowship offices with verifiable business addresses. Students may also have their letters sent to certain professional school application services such as the American Medical College Application Service (AMCAS), the Law School Admission Council (LSAC), and the Associated American Dental Schools Application Service (AADSAS). Reference letters written in support of application to medical school and law school may only be sent, respectively, to medical and law schools’ admission offices and programs.
The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) contains a provision on the disclosure of reference letters. This regulation protects students and writers by guaranteeing that letters, which students request to be sent to a specific party, will only be used by the recipient for admissions or employment purposes; and further, that the letters will not be subsequently shared with other parties or, in the case of letters to which the student has waived access, with the student him- or herself. This way, writers and students alike may be assured that the letters will not be used inappropriately. The Career Center’s Reference Letter Service makes this condition explicit to all recipients of letters; however, while the Reference Letter Service staff takes responsibility for informing recipients of the laws and ethical issues associated with the confidentiality of reference letters, adherence rests with those receiving the letters.
The Reference Letter Service is unable to send reference letters to residential addresses, current employers, personal acquaintances, or third-party recruiters. Exceptions are handled on a case-by-case basis; but, generally, the Reference Letter Service believes that restricted disclosure is in the best interest of both writers and students.
The Career Center’s Reference Letter Service has mechanisms in place to protect the rights and interests of both students and writers. Although violations are infrequent, they do take place. Examples range from students inappropriately attempting to gain access to their confidential letters to submitting forged reference letters. Students who fail to adhere to The Career Center’s Reference Letter Service Policies Agreement are considered in violation of the University of Michigan’s Statement of Student Rights & Responsibilities. In these cases, violations will be handled through the Office of Student Conflict Resolution and possibly through the court system.
The Reference Letter Service ensures the integrity of housing and appropriately sending reference letters by conducting random verification of reference letter authenticity and transmittal requests. The Reference Letter Service may occasionally contact you to verify authorship of a letter or may ask for identification when a reference letter is delivered to the office.
The Reference Letter Service may also return letters containing irregularities. Irregularities may include providing a letter without a signature or contact information; submitting a school- or employer-specific letter; or including comments on a protected classification.