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2020-2021 Ph.D. application question: How to repair the damage of one bad recommendation letter? Should I send another good letter or there is nothing I can do.


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Context: I finished my application for the 2020-2021 Ph.D. program in population health science and epidemiology fields and currently I'm waiting for the results. I have a strong academic background with a bachelor of medicine degree, a master's degree in a top school, good grades, good GRE scores, a few published abstracts, and papers in review/submission, and a few years of working experience. After receiving more rejection letters than I expect, even from the schools that I already contacted potential advisors, I realize something went wrong: I contacted some of the professors I was in touch with during application and they told me that my recommendation letter can be improved, one program director told me one letter could improve the whole application substantially although they were not allowed to tell me the specific person. I narrow it down to two letters from my previous work at a prestigious institution ( I sent our 4 letters instead 3 since I have no idea which one could be a strong letter, a huge mistake from a post hoc perspective) and now my questions are:

  1. I'm still waiting for the results from a few schools ( very promising if it's not the letter situation), is there any way to undo the damage? I asked the schools to retract one letter since it's additional but it seems it's highly unlikely. Anyone has done it before?

  2. Should I send another outstanding letter ( the fifth letter ) to reduce the harm or there is nothing I can do?

  3. I still have no idea which one of the two letters could be the bad one. I know one is going to be short and generic and only commenting on my passion from the center director since he already told me. Should this short letter be sufficient to do the damage or will another letter be the bad apple?

  4. I sent out emails asking my recommenders regarding this situation and they haven't replied yet. I'm wondering what's kind of relationship should I maintain, just wishing our path will never cross again? Or I can require them to send me another good letter for other programs that has a later deadline if I still trust them?

I made a huge mistake of downplaying the importance of a recommendation letter and it, unfortunately, canceled off all of my work and efforts, hope others can avoid the similar rookie mistake

 
Edited by SUCHISLIFE
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A follow-up question: I just have another high profile professors who are willing to provide me with a STRONG recommendation letter ( to apply for new programs, which ranked poorly though).  Do you think it will be worth the efforts for me to contact all of the schools, explain my situations, ask them to use the new letter instead? Most of the schools won't agree deleting the old letters. For the schools I have been rejected, I really think I can fit well. What's the probability they will reconsider if I'm going to appeal my case and provide this new letter?  I know damage has already done but what's the best way to do the harm reduction?   

Edited by SUCHISLIFE
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This is an odd predicament seeing as you do not know which of your LORs was the dud.  It's even odder that it would be only one out of four considering only three are needed.  And then what is really odd about this is one "bad" letter out of three (or four) shouldn't be that big of a deal yet suggests to me that the bad letter came from a known professor at the prestigious university.  I have never heard of anyone willing to write a bad letter.  Boiler plate, sure, but not intentionally bad.  To answer your questions:

1.  You'd have to ask your writers to retract the letter.  This creates too much of a mess and is not worth it.  

2.  If your applications are already submitted, no.  If you already have one extra LOR, a second extra won't 'off-set' the bad LOR.  You'll come across as desperate and/or egotistical.  Those on the admissions committee are going to read a lot of applications.  Asking them to read a potential fifth LOR may not sound like much from your perspective but think of it from theirs.  When they have a stack of apps to go through and are on a time constraint, asking them to read one more letter is not a good way to get them on your side. 

3.  It is common knowledge that a good, but not stellar, LOR can be the kiss of death.  However, that also implies that it may not be.  If all three (or four) of your LORs were good but generic, then yes, that would be bad.  In reality one generic letter is not that big of a deal and is why we are asked to submit three letters.  Did you waive your right[s] to view the letters?  

4.  This likely was not a good idea.  You always want to remain in good grace with your LOR writers in case you need to use them again in the future.  

You have no idea exactly how your choice of LOR writers impacted your applications so far.  It could be as simple as you said A in your SOP while one (or more) of your writers said B.  

 

 

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13 minutes ago, SUCHISLIFE said:

A follow-up question: I just have another high profile professors who are willing to provide me with an STRONG recommendation letter. Do you think it's worth the efforts to contact all of the schools, explain my situations, ask them to use the new letter instead?  For the schools I have been rejected, I really think I can fit well. What's the probability they will reconsider if I'm going to appeal my case and provide this new letter?  I know damage has already done but what's the best way to do the harm reduction?   

You can always try if you like.  A better idea would be to contact the programs directly and ask them.  For those programs you have already been rejected, it is likely too late.  You say that for those you were rejected from you '...think you can fit well.'  Maybe, maybe not, but it may be worth reapplying to these programs again next year.  

You took a chance on applying like everyone else and unfortunately you cannot contest a decision unless you can prove that a gross error was made that you had no part in.  Unless you learn that the bad letter was really bad, perhaps inflammatory, there is really nothing you can do. 

*edit to add:

Even if you can contest the rejections, that does not mean a new decision will be positive. 

Edited by Crucial BBQ
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3 minutes ago, Crucial BBQ said:

You can always try if you like.  A better idea would be to contact the programs directly and ask them.  For those programs you have already been rejected, it is likely too late.  You say that for those you were rejected from you '...think you can fit well.'  Maybe, maybe not, but it may be worth reapplying to these programs again next year.  

You took a chance on applying like everyone else and unfortunately you cannot contest a decision unless you can prove that a gross error was made that you had no part in.  Unless you learn that the bad letter was really bad, perhaps inflammatory, there is really nothing you can do. 

Thanks for your thoughtful analysis and suggestions, this is really helpful. Guess my best shot is to apply for new programs using the new letter. I really don't want wait for another year to get into a good PhD program since I have already spent 3 years working, not to mention the incoming expiration of OPT and the visa situation ...  So now my question is how important the PhD program or schools are if I want to pursue an academic career and apply for faculty positions in the future?  As long as one keep publishing and obtaining grants, maybe where they graduated as a PhD students doesn't really matter that much ?   

 

 

 

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