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Advice needed! Will lukewarm letters of recommendation dilute application?


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I am currently preparing an application and am required to produce X letters of recommendation. I have so far secured X letters from my undergraduate program and also another from a supervisor at a different university. Though I have more than enough references, I got some advice that providing another reference from my undergraduate may help me with some ultra competitive scholarships. I proposed submitting a reference from a supervisor at a good school, but was told it wouldn't have as much weight as someone from my undergrad.

I'm not sure that any other professors will be able to provide detailed letters of recommendation. The one additional professor who I thought would do so has not been replying to my emails.

In essence, is it harmful to submit a less strong reference? I'm worried about watering down my application but am not sure at what point  I recommendations start to hurt. I've also included some potential professors below - if anyone would see them as appropriate let me know.

-Professor of highly quantitative class where I got an A (max possible). Knew me well at the time as I went to all of his office hours. Issues are that I took his class five years ago and English isn't his first language. Full professor at an elite University.

-Professor of most advanced lab class offered, where I got an A and had best ever results on one of the projects in a small class. Not sure he will remember me well as he was very shy. Full professor at an elite university.

-Lecturer of an intro, unrelated class, where I did very well (A) and we are still in contact. He would write a great reference, but I'm worried it would be brushed aside as he is now an academic administrator and taught me as he was finishing his PhD (at elite university).

-Professor of a highly quantitative class who is known for being happy to write recommendations for most of his students. Did well (A-) but wasn't the standout student here. Given this, and the fact it's been a few years, I'm not sure he'd remember me all that well.

 

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I lost you. How many letters do you need to submit and how many do you have? Are the four options you specify here your options and you need to choose three? Or are these all options for an extra letter beyond ones you've already converged on? If the latter, is there any information any of these could provide that isn't already in your other letters?

As a general rule, if you're going to generate extra work for your readers (and under the assumption that this is allowed!), the extra work should be justified. Submitting a weak letter, be it a simple "did well in class" or a slightly better "did well in class a long time ago and also came to office hours", isn't likely to make you stand out. I would vote for N strong letters over N+1 overall not as strong letters.  If you're applying for a research PhD, letters should talk about your potential to succeed in such a program, not just say that you got an A in whatever class or project. 

Oh, and stop worrying about your professors' native language. Any professor at an elite university writes dozens of these letters every year. 

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I need two letters officially. I have three, with two from my undergrad. I was advised that an additional reference from my undergrad would be helpful for scholarships because of the competitiveness of the program I undertook, but the only outstanding options for referees are those listed. I already have three strong letters (I have been shown them), but given the advice I received, I still have questions whether it would be worthwhile solicting an additional letter just to demonstrate my ability to achieve results in a tough program. But I don't want to waste their time and damage my application with a weaker reference.

My target program is at a university significantly less prestigious than my undergrad. That may play into their desire for as many references as possible from my undergrad. For anyone who has gone through the application process, is there ever any benefit submitting referees from classroom subjects? For what it's worth, I offered to provide a research reference from a supervisor at a less prestigious institution than my undergrad, and they had no interest.

The awesome professor I mentioned has very weak written English, so I am hesitant. I have letters from other people who were educated in other languages and their English is spot on. 

Edited by magmacore
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A bit more information seeking: "I was advised..." "I offered .. but they had no interest", etc -- who is doing this advising? Do you have direct communication with someone at the target program? They're telling you that even though they ask for two letters and you already have three, a fourth one would be a good idea?

You also still haven't answer the question of whether any of these letters would add information that's not already in the other letters. 

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Head of the PhD program gave that advice. She said that if I didn't provide it, it was no big deal, but that the more references from my undergrad the better given its reputation, as they will be nominating me for a major scholarship. I am also confused (hence the post!).

My confusion arises from what you were getting at - whether the fourth reference would add anything new. My gut says no - all it would do would confirm that I work hard and that I'm intelligent enough to tackle difficult problems. It would be definitely less personal and less enthusiastic than the other references I've received. It would be another voice saying that I compete among those who get admitted to top programs. My key question is whether this extra voice is worth providing given it will be worse than the other references.

The other research reference I offered would have been outstanding and was actually from a professor in the target department. They didn't think it was worthwhile. I'm trying to weigh up all of these comments to see what is worth providing...

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I think you've sort of answered your own question already. Given that you were told that submitting more letters is good but not crucial, and given that you don't want to submit weak letters, the bottom line is that you should submit an extra letter if it'll add something beyond what you already have in other letters and not otherwise. You should be able to know what each letter will say (roughly) because you know what each prof knows about you. You want people who can say that you have the potential to succeed in a PhD program; to the extent that you've done research already, you want people to say it's innovative and interesting. You want them to say that compared to their other students and given their experience placing advisees in similar programs, you are likely to succeed. You want them to say that you're an agreeable person, who can collaborate, and come up with original ideas. You never said what field you're in and you seem to place a high value on a person's ability to say that you got a high grade and did well in quantitative classes, but it's hard to know how much that really matters. More often it's what you did outside of class that really counts. In any event, if all you have are people who aren't PhDs, or knew you a long time ago, or only knew you from one class but not really much beyond, those don't sound like letters that will add anything. But if the letter is from someone with a strong record of placing students in programs like the one you're applying to, who knows you well, and can talk about your potential and research skills, then it's a yes. 

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I'm in a quantitative field.

I've seen the other reference letters, and they explicitly say that my research and analytical skills are on par with students accepted into top five programs and that I have been performing graduate level research. They are unreserved in their support and speak highly of me in comparison to peers. I was happy and touched by what was said, and I think that an additional reference could confirm I was in the top x% of my cohort but not much l beyond that. From what you've said, I think including that additional reference would water down the praise from the others.

One option to me would be to reconsider adding the additional research reference, despite the commentary from the project director. I don't think it would make a dent in the prestigious scholarship, but I think it would help to cement me getting funding full stop. He would add a lot, as we worked closely together recently.

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33 minutes ago, magmacore said:

I'm in a quantitative field.

Yeah, I got that. Your transcripts will show a high grade. Do we get anything from the prof writing a letter saying you did well in their class that we didn't already get from the transcript? 

I don't know that going against the director's explicit advice makes sense, though absent that advice I would think you're correct. Did they say it'll hurt, or not help, or something else? It's actually a little odd that they would tell you a "did well in class" letter is better than a letter from a research supervisor. I guess they must be very impressed with your school's name for whatever reason. 

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10 minutes ago, fuzzylogician said:

 

I don't know that going against the director's explicit advice makes sense, though absent that advice I would think you're correct. Did they say it'll hurt, or not help, or something else? It's actually a little odd that they would tell you a "did well in class" letter is better than a letter from a research supervisor. I guess they must be very impressed with your school's name for whatever reason. 

She never said it would hurt but just didn't show much interest in it and turned the conversation towards the undergrad professors. I know this guy writes successful letters of reference for this program (and others) each year. I actually thought he would be the most relevant reference, so it was surprising to me that she wasn't as interested in it. To me, it seems like the only strike against him is university brand name, but it's the same department that I'm trying to get into. My experience with him and his colleagues is a reason why this program is my top preference.

I know she will not be the only person evaluating my application, so that's what's making me think twice. I need funding to attend, and references from this guy earn people funding most years. 

I think part of it is that this is not an American program, so I don't think they've had anyone from my university or its peers apply. Brand name may play a bigger role than I was expecting. I still think I'll cap it two references from my undergrad, as I'm happy with what I have from them.

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Ah, I see. That makes sense, then. If he's a faculty member in the same department you're applying to then the committee will get his opinion of you regardless of whether it's an official letter or not, since he knows you and has worked with you. They can just go up to him and ask. They'd be more interested in what other people would say that they otherwise won't be able to just chat with in the hallway. In that case, an extra letter from undergrad makes perfect sense. 

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  • 2 weeks later...

I have another question about letters of recommendation - not directly related but didn't want to start a new thread. 

As mentioned, I've seen both of these letters of recommendation, as I have to submit them to the program directly. Both are strong. One, however (the weaker one) has a few typos. Would it be worth contacting her to see if these can be amended?

 

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Thats a good idea, however, it depends on her friendly nature. I think you might get an expert to help you with that. There are specialists when it comes to recommendations, they can help you with modifying the weak one, check for typos. They have been of help to me. That is if the time is almost up and there is a delay in getting a response from her. 

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On 9/16/2017 at 3:06 AM, magmacore said:

I have another question about letters of recommendation - not directly related but didn't want to start a new thread. 

As mentioned, I've seen both of these letters of recommendation, as I have to submit them to the program directly. Both are strong. One, however (the weaker one) has a few typos. Would it be worth contacting her to see if these can be amended?

 

 

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20 hours ago, Riley1 said:

Thats a good idea, however, it depends on her friendly nature.

Thanks Riley! I am a little worried she'll be insulted/bothered if I ask her, so I'm still unsure whether it would be better to just submit it as is.

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On 9/24/2017 at 7:15 AM, magmacore said:

Thanks Riley! I am a little worried she'll be insulted/bothered if I ask her, so I'm still unsure whether it would be better to just submit it as is.

If you think you can modify it, the typos, it is advice able to do that. She might not have the time editing, and it may be insulting saying there are errors. She took time out to write the letter. It's up to you to modify it if in any way possible for you to it.

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33 minutes ago, Riley1 said:

If you think you can modify it, the typos, it is advice able to do that. She might not have the time editing, and it may be insulting saying there are errors. She took time out to write the letter. It's up to you to modify it if in any way possible for you to it.

Whoa. Do NOT modify another person's letter, you have NO right to do so. First off, you have a copy of the letter, but your recommender will submit copies directly when asked, the letters usually do not go through the student. So making changes to your copy likely won't help at all. Second, and more importantly, it's her letter with her signature on it. You should NEVER make changes to someone else's letter (or any other work, for that matter) without their consent. If it's really that important, you'll have no choice but to write her and let her know you've spotted a few typos. 

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7 hours ago, Riley1 said:

If you think you can modify it, the typos, it is advice able to do that. She might not have the time editing, and it may be insulting saying there are errors. She took time out to write the letter. It's up to you to modify it if in any way possible for you to it.

Yeah, this is a huge no-no. You absolutely don't edit someone else's letter without explicit permission. 

Personally, I find it ethically shady when writers show a student the letter at all, and find it an abrogation of professional responsibility when they ask the student to help write it. 

But that aside, it's not just shady to edit someone else's letter, it's obviously ethically wrong.

 

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8 hours ago, Riley1 said:

If you think you can modify it, the typos, it is advice able to do that. She might not have the time editing, and it may be insulting saying there are errors. She took time out to write the letter. It's up to you to modify it if in any way possible for you to it.

Yeah don't do this.... ever. Unless the person who wrote it has explicitly told you either to do so, or that it's fine to do so. As others above have stated the various reasons why it's a no no. Personally, I waive my right to even see the letter (even though none of the professors have told me to do so). I want them to know whatever they right is confidential, and I want a pure honest opinion from them (even if it may not be the best one). 

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13 hours ago, fuzzylogician said:

Whoa. Do NOT modify another person's letter, you have NO right to do so. First off, you have a copy of the letter, but your recommender will submit copies directly when asked, the letters usually do not go through the student. So making changes to your copy likely won't help at all. Second, and more importantly, it's her letter with her signature on it. You should NEVER make changes to someone else's letter (or any other work, for that matter) without their consent. If it's really that important, you'll have no choice but to write her and let her know you've spotted a few typos. 

To make things clear - my intention was never to alter the letters. I was only asking whether it would be worth asking the professor to do so - if they don't do it, no changes will be made. 

It's actually not a case of the professors showing me the letters on request or because they feel like it. The university actually requires me to submit it myself and will not accept direct submissions from the professors. It even says so on the form they fill out. I would rather them submit it directly because it would make me far less anxious - I don't want to know what they're saying. I lost so much sleep while I was waiting for them to send it back to me. 

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4 hours ago, Eigen said:

Usually those cases you submit a sealed letter- does this university not do that?

No, the only way I can submit it is by uploading it online myself, which it states on each referee form as well as in the portal. It's not an American university so practices do differ from what many people on this board have experienced. 

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2 hours ago, magmacore said:

No, the only way I can submit it is by uploading it online myself, which it states on each referee form as well as in the portal. It's not an American university so practices do differ from what many people on this board have experienced. 

However different the practices may be, changing someone's letter without their consent is not acceptable anywhere anytime.

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2 hours ago, fuzzylogician said:

However different the practices may be, changing someone's letter without their consent is not acceptable anywhere anytime.

I was never going to do this - I don't know where you got this impression. Another poster raised this possibility. All I wanted to know was whether it would be harassing the letter writer if I asked for her to fix two grammatical mistakes that are obvious. 

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On 9/27/2017 at 3:57 AM, magmacore said:

I was never going to do this - I don't know where you got this impression. Another poster raised this possibility. 

You’ll notice my reply was precisely to the post that suggested you edit the letter. And the forceful reactions you are seeing are in case anyone else reading this thread gets the wrong idea. This is a public forum, other people beside you might read your thread; and we want to make sure none of them take the advice of this other poster and commit a major offense like editing a LOR without permission from its author. That’s all. It’s not all just about your post or question, it’s about where the conversation went from there. 

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On 9/25/2017 at 10:28 PM, fuzzylogician said:

Whoa. Do NOT modify another person's letter, you have NO right to do so. First off, you have a copy of the letter, but your recommender will submit copies directly when asked, the letters usually do not go through the student. So making changes to your copy likely won't help at all. Second, and more importantly, it's her letter with her signature on it. You should NEVER make changes to someone else's letter (or any other work, for that matter) without their consent. If it's really that important, you'll have no choice but to write her and let her know you've spotted a few typos. 

I didn't make myself clear enough, and I have confused the readers here. I was in the same situation a year ago, my referee didn't have the time to edit a letter, and I was told to modify it myself to save time. I was permitted after waiting for long without any reply. It is possible to modify someone else's letter that is if permission is granted.

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