As noted in a June 2004 issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education, increasingly graduate schools are creating ways for faculty to deliver recommendation letters online, and in some cases requiring it (3). Those singing the praises of this practice cite Yale’s graduate school receiving about one-third of its recommendations online during the first year it offered the option, and the fact that more than 100 grad schools were already using online forms as of 2004 (3).
The potential downsides to having to deliver recommendation letters online are many. Some faculty already resent having to use technology as much as we do, especially to deliver something as important as a letter of reference, and some find it even more time-consuming than the paper recommendation process. Some faculty also run into technology-related problems—for example, the requirement that the letter is formatted in a particular software, or that the text must be cut and pasted into a box and scrolled through. Different delivery systems and different websites, of course, have different levels of success, and some websites crash during the process or generate vague messages as to whether the letter has actually been sent. Weary faculty use the paper option if available, or they learn to adjust to the online system, sometimes seeking voice or e-mail confirmation that their letter has actually been delivered.
Nevertheless, given that online recommendations save processing time, paper, and money, the practice is certain to grow. In fact, the use of a “Standardized Letter of Recommendation,” where the writer essentially answers multiple choice questions, is also growing in popularity and practice. Many find such forms both incomplete and unsatisfying as evaluative tools, and some worry about whether they’re shortchanging the student if they don’t choose the highest ranking in all areas. On the extreme end, websites like www.letters-of-recommendation.org are also popping up, where you fill in cells with your contact information and student’s name, then pick a number of multiple choice answers in a variety of categories, and the letter “writes itself” (yuck).
At times you will be asked to deliver a letter by e-mail or fax. In such cases—especially if you’re concerned with potential software translation issues—it is wise to seek confirmation that the letter arrived successfully and is formatted as you intended. If the letter is sent as an e-mail attachment, prepare the attachment as a pdf file if possible to ensure a format identical to the original, and proof it in pdf form as well to be sure that both characters and format were translated properly.
Especially if you’re working with a student applying for a national scholarship, where online submission of materials is becoming the norm, you may also have to register at a website or have the student register you in order to ensure letter delivery. Such complications underscore how important it can be for faculty to partner both with students and, when relevant, scholarship representatives at your school. Such partnership is often the only way to be certain that all the mechanics of electronic delivery are addressed.