interfolio, letters and such

I realize this is just another instance of a privileged person not knowing what is going on, but I have just become aware that the price to an applicant of having reference letters sent out via Interfolio is now $6 “per delivery” (which can be one letter or a whole set of letters or a whole application packet), and is the same fee for email as for paper mail (which seems outrageous to me). Some years ago our department started asking our grads to use Interfolio and picked up the initial fee for setting up the service. The reason for the shift is that producing paper letters for students applying to a large number of jobs had become a huge problem for our downsized office staff in our large department. My memory (admittedly very hazy) is that when we discussed this many years ago, the initial fee included a certain number of letters and the incremental price of letters over that initial number seemed fairly low. But maybe even then we were not paying enough attention. In any event, I now know how costly this is for applicants and am motivated to seek alternatives.

I know that the mathematics association has a centralized application portal that is paid for by employers and is free to applicants: https://www.mathjobs.org/jobs . Setting something like this up for sociology would require some initial investment in overhead, although as models for this already exist, one imagines it would not involve reinventing the wheel. This seems like something our ASA dues ought to pay for, and should be attached to the Employment Bulletin (as it is attached to job ads for mathematicians.) Are there other models out there?

And in the mean time, what is the situation in other departments about getting reference letters produced? Do you have your office staff tasked to produce and submit letters via email or paper? Do you expect your faculty to manage the clerical task of generating dozens of letters for each student they are writing for? And in reading them on the other end? As a file evaluator, do you expect to see what appear to be individually-tailored (i.e. mail-merged) letters for every applicant? Do you downgrade applicants whose letters appear to be generic, especially if they do not have your institution in the inside address? Because I know we send out mass-produced letters, I personally do NOT weigh this as a factor, but I want to know what others think.

Opinions, thoughts, experiences appreciated.

Edit: To clarify pricing. A “delivery” is $6, whether by email or paper mail. A “delivery” can be an entire application packet including cover letter, cv, teaching statement, writing sample, and all letters, in which case the $6 for a paper portfolio is pretty reasonable, although a case can be made that the $6 for emailing the packet is overpriced. But if the applicant is only using the system to send reference letters and is sending them individually, an applicant would be spending $18 for three letters or $30 for five letters, which is really way too much.  In addition, the price is $4 per item to send a reference letter to an on-line portal, in which case the price would be $12-$20, depending on the number of letters.  If the receiving institution has an interfolio account and requires interfolio submission, the charge to the applicant is zero.

21 Comments

  1. Posted September 15, 2013 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

    OW: I don’t have any wise ideas here. But I’m glad you brought it up. I had no idea about the cost of interfolio. My issue these days is more that every letter is different. Some places want mailed letters. Some want letters with signatures. Some want me to fill out some form (how long have I known the applicant/etc.). Some want letters emailed to an address. Others want me to upload it. Some want Word files; others only take PDF. And with several students you’re writing letters for, it’s no simple task to make sure you get every one in (and for students, it’s uncomfortable to ask, “I know I applied for 30 jobs, but did you get X recommendation in?”). I think the ASA model is good one. And as an added benefit, if it worked well (single place for applicants and recommenders to place letters with a single format), it would create a lot of good will for the organization.

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  2. Posted September 15, 2013 at 4:41 pm | Permalink

    The Modern Languages Association has a deal set up with Interfolio that members get the Interfolio intial fee waived. Also, employers can use Interfolio to collect all the applications, and if they do so there are no costs to the applicants. That doesn’t help much when so many departments are required to use their school’s internal application system (and I have no idea what the Interfolio costs are on the department side) but it’s better than nothing.

    My old graduate program still has office staff manage paper letters for job seekers for only a buck a packet, which is nice, but they won’t do e-mails. We either have to have our advisors send letters directly (potentially disastrous: though they try hard and mean well, something is bound to get lost in the shuffle) or use Interfolio. My letter writers do not personalize letters except in very rare cases (applying for a particularly prestigious fellowships, etc.) because there are simply too many applications that require letters. I sent about 100 job applications out last year, 75 of which required letters. Since most of my letter writers have three or four advisees on the market (and some significantly more: the director of our writing program writes letters for almost everyone on the market in a given year, even when none are his advisees), it really becomes untenable to do 200-300 letters, even if it is typically spread out over six months. No one in literature expects personalized letters at the Assistant Professor level, though it’s probably different at the Associate/Full level.

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  3. gradstudentbyday
    Posted September 15, 2013 at 5:19 pm | Permalink

    My department pays students’ $19 Interfolio initiation fee, just as the MLA does, and I’m grateful for it, as I imagine that humanities students are. But just to be clear about the scope of the problem, paying that $19 fee is largely a symbolic contribution.

    I’m on the market now and I’m paying $18 for every single job that I apply to, just to have my three letters emailed/uploaded by Interfolio. It dwarfs the $19 pretty fast. (If I’d taken my department administrator’s advice and used Interfolio for all my job documents, not just the letters where because of the need for confidentiality I have little choice, I wouldn’t be able to pay my rent.)

    I really do think that the only way out is through the disciplinary associations. Standardizing the application interfaces would improve so many aspects of this process for grad students, faculty writing letters, and staff. This is exactly the kind of collective problem I would be glad to pay dues to have solved.

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  4. Posted September 15, 2013 at 5:39 pm | Permalink

    Huh? Why is it costing $18 per job? I thought it was $6 per delivery, which could include all your letters and rest of your packet.

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    • gradstudentbyday
      Posted September 15, 2013 at 5:45 pm | Permalink

      Maybe it’s just the way our department uploads this and/or how I’m doing the applications and it could be done differently, but we have each letter uploaded as a separate document, and as far as I can tell I am being charged for each one as a separate delivery.

      If I’m just doing this in an idiotic way, that would be awesome. I’ll still be an idiot, but an idiot with more money.

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    • gradstudentbyday
      Posted September 15, 2013 at 6:16 pm | Permalink

      Update/correction: when I request multiple letters for a single university through that university’s online system, Interfolio charges me $4/letter, or $12 total (not $18).

      When I had to email the letters via Interfolio (vs. requesting them through the university’s online system), that’s how it came to $6/letter even to send to the same university. This may or may not be because I’m missing a way to do it more cheaply.

      Either way, this is a lot of money going to Interfolio for handling letters.

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      • Posted September 15, 2013 at 7:23 pm | Permalink

        You are missing a way to do it more cheaply. You can put multiple letters in a single delivery, so it only cost you six dollars for the whole dossier, instead of per letter.

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      • gradstudentbyday
        Posted September 15, 2013 at 11:39 pm | Permalink

        Thanks, Sapience!

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  5. bjrisman
    Posted September 15, 2013 at 6:24 pm | Permalink

    I usually write two or event three drafts of letters, if the student is applying to different kinds of institutions, and post both to the interfolio site. If there are letters that need to be personalized beyond that, i do them myself. But this is honestly the first i’ve ever heard that Interfolio charges my students…. I’m appalled that they pay $4.00 per letter…As a letter reader, i do not expect letters from references to be specific to UIC! That would be inhumane given how many letters each of us writes for our students…

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Posted September 15, 2013 at 6:44 pm | Permalink

    I have applied to several jobs via interfolio, and I was only charged for one application (aside from the initial fee). I paid $6.00 total to have all three letters, and all of my written materials sent to one particular job. When I submitted letters to a school’s online system via interfolio, I wasn’t charged, and I haven’t been charged when a school conducts their search through interfolio. I was surprised to see extra costs at all… but I’m not sure what I’m doing differently than other students who are getting billed more often.

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  7. Posted September 15, 2013 at 7:22 pm | Permalink

    Interfolio has recently change its pricing scheme, which might account for the differences some people are reporting. But anyway you cut it, it’s still too much.

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  8. Posted September 15, 2013 at 7:48 pm | Permalink

    I’m fascinated to hear how more people evaluate personalized letters. Do they signal a particular interest in a student, or a lack of prestige on the part of a faculty member who took the time to make sure each letter had an address on it? Or really, is it just a time-intensive, relatively meaningless detail?

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    • Posted September 16, 2013 at 6:32 pm | Permalink

      ssluzer, I faced this same issue. I went back to my own department’s long short list (10 applicants, ~3 letters per applicant) from our search last year and here is some data.

      48% of letter writers wrote personalized letters
      52% of letter writers did not personalize their letters and just addressed them to the “search committee”

      Most of the letter writers were at top 20 institutions. There were enthusiastic letters that were not personalized, and there were positive-but-not-effusive recommendations that were personalized (I didn’t spend enough time to figure out a central tendency though). I feel pretty confident in saying that personalization did not factor in my own evaluation of the candidates and I am skeptical it matters at all.

      I suspect it is a time-intensive meaningless detail.

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  9. Posted September 15, 2013 at 8:25 pm | Permalink

    I was part of the committee that decided to switch us to interfoli a few years ago. At that time, they did not charge per letter the way they do now. Setting aside the membership fee (which we paid), it was cheaper then to upload the students entire file, including letters, for less than they paid to mail them out. Too bad that interfolio is raising prices on what was a good thing. And it’s important that faculty everywhere become aware of this. It seems that hiring departments increasingly request letters be uploaded to their own websites, which is something recommenders can do gratis. Perhaps a better way to go in the long run, although I would put in a plug for standardization in this, the way medical schools do, because it’s a pain to work through each web site….

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  10. Posted September 15, 2013 at 8:40 pm | Permalink

    I think the ASA should put all of their efforts into creating an alternative to this. It would profit the ASA and end the exploitation of students. Departments have lowered their mailing bills, but we can’t thank interfolio—we could have just as well done that using e-mail. Indeed, all of our external tenure letters come by e-mail, and there is minimal or NO advantage to interfolio for managing a search (from the employer perspective).

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  11. Posted September 15, 2013 at 9:19 pm | Permalink

    I personalize all my letters to the target department, some more than others. Our graduate secretary will send out standardized letters for faculty/students.

    Our college uses academicjobsonline as the portal for applications. Since this is all an up-lolad job, interfolio is really ripping off any student who uses it.

    We hired someone a few years who used interfolio as a mechanism to control faculty letter writers so they did not fail at the task.

    I totally agree this would be a good task to integrate into the ASA job bank. Older Woman you might forward this thread to Sally Hillsman, Cecilia Ridgeway and Mary Romero?

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  12. krippendorf
    Posted September 16, 2013 at 10:31 am | Permalink

    I write 2-3 templates — e.g., one for B-school jobs, one for R1 soc departments, one for teaching-focused institutions — but rarely tailor my letters beyond that. My department does not provide administrative support for letters.

    When I’m evaluating letters, I don’t look for personalization. I do, however, look askance at mass-produced letters that say something on the order of, “X will thrive in a business school environment.” I’m in a soc department, and I have no interest in wasting time or offers on candidates who very likely to accept a b-school offer if they have that option. Charlie Brown, I’m not.

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  13. Posted September 16, 2013 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

    as an applicant, one of the things that frustrates me tremendously about the standard HR program most schools seem to use is that it won’t send the request for a LOR out to my recommenders until all of my application parts are submitted. which is a real pain because then either i have to have all my materials ready many weeks in advance, or my recommenders get shortchanged on time to upload. interfolio does not have this particular problem. i’m a fan of getting ASA to do a centralized system which fixes all these problems.

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  14. SD
    Posted September 16, 2013 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

    to clarify interfolio’s pricing:
    — 6 dollars for sending a recommendation (packet and everything else) in one “delivery” – this works only if the hiring institution takes applications by email.

    — for online applications requiring uploads or mail-backs, interfolio can email or upload your confidential letters to the hiring department’s web-system. This process costs $4 per letter per application (so $12 per application if you have three letters to send)

    overall- quite outrageously priced, and my sentiments are with the OP. I have however decided I need to afford rent in the bay area more than a smooth application process: hence I spend most of my days begging administrative assistants to send out my letters in time.

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  15. Posted September 25, 2013 at 8:22 am | Permalink

    As someone back on the market after a few years in a postdoc and then faculty position, I have been reminded of just how terrible the whole situation is.

    However, I think that some of the biggest issues are easily solved by one simple move: schools should only require a cover letter and CV for the first round of applications.

    Let’s be honest, it’s the cover letter and CV that determine if you make the first cut. Why have us send in absurd amounts of material on the first round? Some schools request full teaching portfolios, several writing samples, research and teaching statements, AND letters of reference for every single applicant. That’s ridiculous.

    Don’t even get me started on the schools that require strange statements that are only for their positions. A statement on “how you contribute to our social justice mission” or “how you link your research and teaching agendas” is just a pain in the ass and no one is actually going to make a determination based on that document. Ask those questions in a phone interview if you think someone is worth the time.

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    • Posted September 25, 2013 at 3:35 pm | Permalink

      I’m somewhat uncomfortable with letter and cv only, because I feel that so little information is inadequate for the typical new PhD, for whom letters really matter. And I personally feel like I learn a lot from at least skimming a writing sample when the person either has no publications or is published only in journals I don’t know, and from how the person describes their research either in the cover letter or a separate research statement or dissertation precis. At the same time I agree with the sentiment about excessive price of entry for an application. And in fact, my department does not require a writing sample of applicants, but instead asks for it from the long list of people who might make the cut. When we had a narrowly targeted search, we did ask for a statement about how the person fit that search, both as a way of screening out non-viable applicants on area grounds and as a way of allowing an applicant to tell us why they were qualified even if their publications and teaching experience didn’t make that obvious.

      Back to my other hand, from a search committee point of view, the market moves fast and the overhead of having to send out follow up inquiries for additional materials can slow you down. And I imagine that the small schools that get lots of applicants (lots more than our top-10 R1 department gets) may feel that escalating the price of an application helps to cut down on dealing with the less-than-serious applicants. But, then, on the other side, requesting the bigger portfolio only from the people who seem to make the first cut (the long list, as it were) does cut down on the amount of work everyone has to do.

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