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Should I submit more than three rec letters if the grad school allow to?

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Hello! I am applying MIT for graduate study. In the application form, applicants can provide more than three reference letters. Should I submit four referees if I can make sure all four rec letters are positive? I read an article which was written in 2009, and in the article the author said admission committees would not spend time to read all the letters if the applicant submitted more than three. Mostly, they would choose three and read. I was wondering if it is the truth. And I appreciate it if you could give me some suggestions on what I should do. Thank you guys for spending time to read my question. :)

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9 minutes ago, tmpz000999 said:

 Should I submit four referees if I can make sure all four rec letters are positive? 

How would you do that if you've waived confidentiality?

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@Sigaba Because the four referees know me well. That's why I am sure they would like to write me positive letters. Maybe my expression is wrong when I say "make sure". I should say "I think they can provide positive letters. " :) 

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4 minutes ago, tmpz000999 said:

@Sigaba Because the four referees know me well. That's why I am sure they would like to write me positive letters. Maybe my expression is wrong when I say "make sure". I should say "I think they can provide positive letters. " :) 

Fair enough.

However, you don't want them to write you positive letters. You want them to write honest letters that describe accurately your potential, your strengths, and your weaknesses. If you're a strong candidate, the letters will have a positive impact -- that's something different.

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@Sigaba Yes I agree. So maybe I should rephrase my question cuz when I say "positive letters" and "they know me well", what I meant is they can write honest letters, and those letters will have positive impact to my application. 

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No one can tell you how any one person is going to treat your 4 letters. They may read them all attentively, skim them all, choose three to read carefully, skim three, read/skim 2, etc etc. Here is my general thinking: anything you submit beyond what is required (and for what it's worth, everything that you submit, period) should serve the purpose of advancing your candidacy. There is no point in submitting a "did well in class" extra letter or a meh extra writing sample, etc. If you have four strong letters that would give your application an extra boost compared to just having three letters, that to me is a reason to submit the extra letter. Note of caution: since it's not out of the realm of possibility that someone will only read three letters, and those could be whichever three happen to be submitted first, you do want to ask yourself how your application would be affected if one (random) letter is not read. Also check if the department doesn't have guidelines that say "submit exactly three letters"; they may use a school-wide system that technically allows for more letters, but check to see that they haven't said not to abuse this function. If there are no instructions to the contrary and you think all four letters are strong, I'd submit them all. There's a small risk involved, but to me the potential benefits outweigh the risk.  

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1 hour ago, Sigaba said:

How would you do that if you've waived confidentiality?

Although I am sure you know what is actually asked of applicants when they "waive their rights", I think it's important to be clear here for other readers. The majority of application forms asks the applicant to waive the right granted by FERPA to inspect the letter because it goes into your student record and FERPA grants you the right to view your student record. Therefore when one waives this right, one is only waiving the right to use FERPA in the manner above. This does not mean you are not allowed to simply ask the letter writer to show you their letter (or access the letter via any other means).

There may be other applications out there that have more general waivers, so be careful, but know that the general FERPA waiver does not preclude you from accessing your letters via any other means. Not that I'm recommending people do this (I actually don't think this is a good idea) but just saying this since if you did see the letter in some other way, there is no need to worry, you can still honestly and ethically tick off the FERPA waiver box.

1 hour ago, Sigaba said:

However, you don't want them to write you positive letters. You want them to write honest letters that describe accurately your potential, your strengths, and your weaknesses. If you're a strong candidate, the letters will have a positive impact -- that's something different.

Maybe we're just talking about semantics here, but I would advocate that students do not want honest letters if being honest means a discussion of their strengths and weaknesses. In the ideal world, I would love to have the LOR treated as an unbiased and fair evaluation. But in reality, the LOR must be 100% positive, at least in North American schools. Now of course, you still want honest letters, because you don't want someone to lie for you, so I agree with you when it comes to "honest" letters in the sense of "truthful" letters. However, I don't think it is good advice for students to seek "honest" letters in the sense of "candid" or the description I quoted from @Sigaba here.

These letters are letters of "recommendation". They are supposed to be from people who want you to get this position and will write you a supportive, positive letter. They are not "reviews" of your work. For more, see: https://theprofessorisin.com/2016/09/07/how-to-write-a-recommendation-letter/

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3 hours ago, TakeruK said:

Although I am sure you know what is actually asked of applicants when they "waive their rights", I think it's important to be clear here for other readers. The majority of application forms asks the applicant to waive the right granted by FERPA to inspect the letter because it goes into your student record and FERPA grants you the right to view your student record. Therefore when one waives this right, one is only waiving the right to use FERPA in the manner above. This does not mean you are not allowed to simply ask the letter writer to show you their letter (or access the letter via any other means).

There may be other applications out there that have more general waivers, so be careful, but know that the general FERPA waiver does not preclude you from accessing your letters via any other means. Not that I'm recommending people do this (I actually don't think this is a good idea) but just saying this since if you did see the letter in some other way, there is no need to worry, you can still honestly and ethically tick off the FERPA waiver box.

^This falls into broader issue of student's rights that you and I have been kicking back and forth for a while.

MOO remains that when what "is right" collides with a student's rights, the former should prevail as often as not. If a professor asks a student not to read a letter, the student should agree and keep the spirit of the agreement, or find someone else to write it. If a student waives the right to read a letter under one convention but then splits the hair so she can see it, the integrity of the process for everyone is compromised. 

It's my view that the Ivory Tower is in bad decline because a critical mass of professors wants little to nothing to do with a critical mass of undergraduates. Educators bear the lion's share of responsibly for this state of affairs. And yes, I know that abuses of power take place in the Ivory Tower (not bitter, though).  And I think that a significant measure of accountability falls on the shoulders of students seeking to leverage every procedural advantage they can out of a system designed in a different age.

3 hours ago, TakeruK said:

Maybe we're just talking about semantics here, but I would advocate that students do not want honest letters if being honest means a discussion of their strengths and weaknesses. In the ideal world, I would love to have the LOR treated as an unbiased and fair evaluation. But in reality, the LOR must be 100% positive, at least in North American schools. Now of course, you still want honest letters, because you don't want someone to lie for you, so I agree with you when it comes to "honest" letters in the sense of "truthful" letters. However, I don't think it is good advice for students to seek "honest" letters in the sense of "candid" or the description I quoted from @Sigaba here.

@TakeruK, I am not talking about semantics. I'm talking about LoRs that are frank, warts and all. IMO, the process is about programs picking those applicants who, warts and all, present the potential to be professionals that will advance a domain of knowledge. "100% positive" letters do the applicant, the letter writer, and ultimately, the profession an applicant wishes to learn a disservice.

YMMV.

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3 hours ago, Sigaba said:

^This falls into broader issue of student's rights that you and I have been kicking back and forth for a while.

MOO remains that when what "is right" collides with a student's rights, the former should prevail as often as not. If a professor asks a student not to read a letter, the student should agree and keep the spirit of the agreement, or find someone else to write it. If a student waives the right to read a letter under one convention but then splits the hair so she can see it, the integrity of the process for everyone is compromised. 

I certainly agree with you there. A student requesting a LOR should never find ways to circumvent the inherent mutual trust, whether it's through FERPA or not. I just mean that if the letter writer is willing to share the contents of the letter with the student, the evaluation/admissions committee need not to know (and should not know) since it's a matter between the student and their letter writer. I'm just saying that your earlier post made it sound like you cannot waive the right if you also ask the letter writer about your letter. 

3 hours ago, Sigaba said:

 

@TakeruK, I am not talking about semantics. I'm talking about LoRs that are frank, warts and all. IMO, the process is about programs picking those applicants who, warts and all, present the potential to be professionals that will advance a domain of knowledge. "100% positive" letters do the applicant, the letter writer, and ultimately, the profession an applicant wishes to learn a disservice.

YMMV.

In a vacuum, or if we were able to start the system all over again and get everyone to agree on the same rules, then I completely agree with you. 

However, although I am often guilty of it myself, as advice-givers, we need to be responsible enough to distinguish between what the ideal world should be and what is reality (I hope to at least always provide a more practical viewpoint when presenting an idealistic one). 

At least in my field (and evidently, many others as this comes up in many web searches), there is "letter inflation" or whatever you want to call it. Everyone knows that the 100% positive letters aren't telling the whole story. But if you write a less than 100% positive letter for your student, you're basically dooming them. In a "letter economy" where 100% positive is the norm (and people expect hidden negatives) what would a letter that dares to say something negative mean? If everyone expects letters to not mention bad things, then how bad is it that the letter actually brings it up? And what other negatives are not being said?

So, I think it's all good in theory to want to bring more meaning back into the letters. But I think professors do a huge disservice to their students if they don't fall in line with the field norms. You have responsibility to your students as well as your field. It's not right to risk your students' career in an attempt to "right" the profession. And similarly for those of us who aren't professors or letter writers, I think we should be careful about the advice we give.

I do have other ideas on how I think the letter business should be corrected but this is not really the best place for that! 

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