By JEFFREY L. SEGLIN
Q: I’m currently enrolled in college in New York, studying to be an engineer. Since I’m from Brazil and English is not my first language, I have a hard time with classes that have writing assignments. I sometimes ask a friend to read my essays before I turn them in to help fix the grammar and language.
I believe I’m being graded mainly on my ideas, and my friend helps me get my ideas across better in English. Is this OK? –- Mariana R., Mount Vernon, New York
A: It’s good that you want to succeed in your written work at college, and making use of all available resources is a smart strategy. But while you may believe that your instructors don’t care as much about how you write as they do about your ideas, that’s not a fair assumption.
Certainly, your ideas are important. No matter how polished your writing is, it will not disguise a poorly formulated idea in a paper. But as a college student, your ability to articulate your thoughts clearly -– whether you’re speaking in class or writing a paper –- is critical to show that you’ve mastered the material.
This does not mean you shouldn’t ask others to review your written work before you hand it in. That’s OK.
You should not, however, allow friends to rewrite portions of your papers for you. They should simply let you know about any areas that are unclear and need work.
Asking someone to rewrite stuff for you is dishonest, and it can backfire. Professors are pretty good at recognizing inconsistent writing, so if you suddenly turn in a paper that reads like it was written by a Pulitzer Prize winner –- or anyone other than you — alarm bells will go off. You could end up failing the course or even face disciplinary action.
Many colleges have writing centers where tutors will work with you without doing the work for you. Seek them out.
Regardless of whether you consult with a friend or a tutor, the right thing is for you to talk to your instructors to let them know you plan to seek assistance. If you ask them for guidelines on what’s appropriate and what’s not for written work in their classes, that will allow you to be as transparent as possible about how you completed your assignments.
Q: I have been asked to write my own recommendation letters to college by a few people I have approached about writing letters for me. I know it shouldn’t be my responsibility to do this, but it is hard for me to tell my recommenders this, partly because those I respect are the ones asking me to write my own letter and partly because I lack the self-esteem to tell them this is wrong. What should I do? — Anne F., Boonville, California
A: This isn’t the first time I’ve heard about prospective college students being asked to write their own recommendation letters. But while it may not be anything new, don’t allow yourself to believe it’s OK.
It can certainly be tempting to craft a letter depicting yourself in an ultra-positive light, but that would be a mistake. It would be dishonest for your recommender to sign a letter that someone else wrote. And it’s a lazy way for him (or her) to handle your request. Don’t let your recommenders be lazy.
It is fair for them to ask you for a resume or a list of accomplishments you’d like them to consider highlighting. You can also tell them what you believe the school you’re applying to might be looking for in recommendations. But once they receive that information, they should write the letters themselves.
Academic institutions sometimes ask applicants to confirm the honesty of the material they submit with their applications. It would be a challenge to argue that a recommendation letter you wrote for yourself — above someone else’s signature — is honest. Starting off a college career with such a false representation is hardly a sign of good academic integrity — no matter how many of your friends are doing it.
The right thing is for any prospective recommenders who are too busy to write letters to decline. And the right thing for applicants is to proceed only with those recommenders who will actually write the letters to which they sign their names. If someone asks you to write the letter yourself, look for a new recommender who cares enough to give it the time and honesty you deserve.
Do you have questions about the right thing to do? Send them to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
(Jeffrey L. Seglin is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard’s Kennedy School. The author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today’s Business, he covers ethical issues in his blog: www.jeffreyseglin.com. Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin.)