Question: Is Returning Recommendation Letters in Signed, Sealed Envelopes Too Much to Ask?
Recently a reader asked me whether it's an imposition to ask faculty to not only write letters of recommendation but to return them to the student, each in a separate signed and sealed envelope. Is it too much to ask? Is organizing all that paperwork unreasonable?
The standard is that students are not to have contact - be able to read - their letters of recommendation. Traditionally, programs required that faculty submit recommendation letters independently of the student or give them to students in sealed and signed envelopes. The problem with asking faculty to send recommendations directly to the admissions office is the possibility of losing a letter. If you go this route be sure to contact the admissions office to determine that all of your letters have arrived. The second option is for the faculty to return their letters of recommendation to the student. Letters are confidential, so admissions committees ask that faculty seal the envelope and then sign over the seal, assuming that it will be obvious if a student opened the envelope.
Admissions offices often prefer that applications arrive complete, with faculty recommendations in the packet. Faculty know this, so don't feel that you're asking faculty to do too much work - it's a standard part of the application process and faculty know what they're getting into. That said, you can make it easier for faculty by preparing an envelope for each program. Clip the recommendation form and any relevant material to the envelope and faculty can fill out the form and insert it and their letter in the envelope -- it' still a drag but at least a little easier. Your referees will appreciate it.
Recently electronic applications have become very common, possibly even the norm. You complete your application online and give faculty links where they can access recommendation forms and submit their letters online. If you go this route give faculty all the info they need. Email the links but also include a hard copy of the application and recommendation forms.