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Rec letters: How Many?


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Depends how good the letters are and if they bring something different to the table or not (in my opinion). If you have four letters that say substantially the same thing, then you don't gain or lose anything by sending them. Perhaps there's some slight benefit from having four people reiterate that you're a good student, but that might be outweighed by the committee being annoyed with reading the same thing four times. On the other hand, if every letter says something different you might be onto something; for example, if you had one letter from a professor you did research for, one from an honors advisor, one from a prof you took a seminar with and wrote a nice paper, and one from a prof who's famous and/or knows people at a program you're interested in. Obviously, that has some potential.

What I'd be afraid of is a situation like this:

Rec 1: "X is fantastic! One of, if not the, best students I've ever had"

Rec 2: "X is downright brilliant."

Rec 3: "X is a very clever researcher and wrote one of the best undergrad seminar papers I've ever read"

Rec 4: "X is a good student and did well in my class"

In this situation, Rec 4 is still positive, but I think it works against you. The first three recs are absolutely gushing, and will leave the committee thinking that you're incredible, but the 4th brings you back down to earth. So, personally, my strategy was to pick the three professors I know liked me the most and will write the most superlative letters. I added a 4th letter at one school, where my professor is a recent PhD alum, figuring that his personal connection might help me.

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I'm facing a similar dilemma, though with the added corollary that one (out of the ten) programs I'm applying to in fact requires 4 letters of recommendation. I thus the face following problem: if I'm requesting 4 letters anyway should I then just send all 4 to whichever schools may accept them? Adding an additional dimension to this problem is who to request my 4th letter from. I've attempted to reach out to a professor outside of my subfield for a letter but I am yet to hear back from him, which leads me to think I may not be able to get a rec out of him. Another option I have would be to request a letter from an investigative journalist (who works on torture - i.e. interested in political matters) for whom I've conducted research. I'm a little wary of this option as he's in no position to corroborate my standing as a political scientist, though he's offered to write a letter for me numerous times and would certainly have great things to say about my penchant for research. Though considering I'm applying for political theory it's unclear as to whether his voice would carry much weight in the eyes of the adcomm.... any suggestions?

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