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Try to read your letter of rec’s before submission


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TLDR – as the title says: Try to read your letter of rec’s before submission

I am sure this might be too late for some, but hopefully someone out there will benefit from this warning. Learn from my mistake and read your letter of recommendations (LOR) before they are submitted.

I have been a working professional for several years but kept ties with my old professors. Several months ago I announced to my professors that I was finally going to apply to doctoral programs and they were very optimistic, and even volunteered to write me letters before I had a chance to formally ask. I chose three of those professors who have written several LOR’s for me in the past so I knew that they would write great letters on my behalf.

Here is where things go wrong. Closer to my soft deadline I noticed that one of my professors started to act “odd” and I knew something was wrong. He was my committee chair for my masters degree and I knew he had a publication deadline and obviously under a lot of pressure. He said that he was still more than willing to write me a letter and that I should only apply to 3 schools. I found that odd but was able to coax him into believing 4 school applications would be acceptable. I asked if he was OK and he said it was a personal family issue and just shrugged it off. This was about four months ago in which later I found that his wife almost passed away.

This brings us to the present. I have been going stir crazy waiting for decisions and have received 3 out of 4 rejections so I nicely asked my professors for guidance and if they would be willing to show me the LOR that they wrote. Two of my professors were more than glad to email them to me and they wrote exquisitely. However, my “odd” acting professor disclaimed that I waived my rights to seeing my LOR but ended up forwarding me a copy anyways. I was shocked to find that the first half of my LOR was a blatant reproduction of my statement of purpose and the second half was basically a reflection of my professors depressing state of mind at that time and was quite woeful and damaging.

I have asked my professor to explain his reasoning on the LOR but I am sure that the damage is done and I have accepted that. There is always next year and I will definitely not use that professor again. Additionally, hopefully the schools that I plan to apply to again won’t remember his depressing letter.

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That sounds really bad. More so because there is nothing that you could have done differently to prevent it. While I wouldn't have the nerve to ask my professors to share the recommendations with me, I feel that it is important that we explicitly ask them if they would write a 'strong' letter. Well, in a sense a letter of recommendation by definition should be a strong one, but since it's such a subjective thing, its best that we clarify things beforehand to avoid such surprises.

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I would strongly advise against trying to see your LoRs before they're submitted. I know teachers that would choose not to write them if that were the case. Additionally, schools want to know that you waived your right to see the letters, so they can feel like the letters are written honestly, and not tainted by the fact that the student sees them. I had a friend of mine ask a few general questions about their LoR to a faculty member about a week before a deadline- and it was a facutly member they knew really well. Said person was offended to the point that they backed out with 5 days left until the deadline, leading to having to scramble at the last minute to get the last letter they needed. I was really close to my thesis advisor, and I never saw the letter he wrote. Nor would I have asked, and I think he would have been offended if I had. You seriously need to be careful about how you go about it if you want to try.

You also might risk word getting around and someone not wanting to write a letter for you down the road/next cycle.

If you waive your rights to see them on the application and then pressure the faculty to see them, that's (imo) an ethical breach, and you're technically lying on the application. If you don't waive your right to see the letters, it will send up a huge red flag to any admissions committee.

Being sure you get strong letters is important, trying to actually read the letters isn't the way you go about it. They're supposed to be confidential for a reason.

Additionally, for the OP: Not having a LoR from the committee chair for your thesis will look very fishy in your application. I'd think hard about whether you want to replace him or not.

Edited by Eigen
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I agree with both of the comments and that I wrote in haste. I guess my relationship with my professor is a little different since we drink and have known each other for almost 15 years. I finally talked to him today and after a long conversation we came to a consensus. We both truly felt bad and if my spouse was in the same boat and was gravely ill I would not know what to do and I am sure it would have affected me as well.

I too would also have been too proud to tell anyone. As with the waver, him as well as one of my other professors told me to check it but don’t worry about it as it’s a formality, again that’s probably just because of my long relationships with them. My other professor who said that actually let me look over her draft before she sent it so maybe thats why I didnt know it was taboo to actually see it.

Thanks again all.

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I've had some letter writers want me to read the letters, others who haven't. In a pinch I have even been asked to write a draft for them. I have NEVER asked to read the letter, however. On one occasion I cringed a little when I read the letter after it was submitted (I was cc-ed on the e-mail that it was sent on) but I received the scholarship regardless. In the writer's defense, the next letter he wrote for me was amazing, we had worked together a great deal since the weaker letter was written.

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I agree with both of the comments and that I wrote in haste. I guess my relationship with my professor is a little different since we drink and have known each other for almost 15 years. I finally talked to him today and after a long conversation we came to a consensus. We both truly felt bad and if my spouse was in the same boat and was gravely ill I would not know what to do and I am sure it would have affected me as well.

I too would also have been too proud to tell anyone. As with the waver, him as well as one of my other professors told me to check it but don’t worry about it as it’s a formality, again that’s probably just because of my long relationships with them. My other professor who said that actually let me look over her draft before she sent it so maybe thats why I didnt know it was taboo to actually see it.

Thanks again all.

Very understandable frustrations. I had a friend of mine (after the fact) read a letter they ended up not using for any applications- it was a positive letter, but a scant six sentences long. She was exceptionally frustrated with the professor who was too busy to really write a good one, but said yes anyway.

I'll also add that I don't think it's taboo to see the letters- just taboo to ask/pressure your letter writers into letting you see them. I had one undergrad letter writer who asked me to look his over (english was not his native language) and one letter writer in grad school who did the same thing. When you waive your right to see the letter, that's exactly what you're doing- waiving a *right* to see the letter. You can still look at it if offered, but you no longer have a right to it, imo.

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I found it odd that the online applications had a little box asking me if I waived the right to see my LORs. I never imagined that I COULD ask to see them. I guess I take the point of view that I only asked people for LORs who I was certain would give me a good recommendation.

With that said, a conversation I had with a professor sometime ago revealed that there are some professors who will write a "bad" or faintly veiled "bad" LOR for a someone whom they feel is truly wrong for the field. IE. the professor truly feels that the person in question really should not move on. And oftentimes, those professors do not let on that they are writing a "bad" LOR. .... Our recommenders are human after all..

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