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When rereading my copies of letters of recommendation I wrote when a student of mine applied to multiple graduate schools, I was appalled to see mistakes I made where the wrong graduate program was mentioned in the letter. For example, in a letter to CMU, I recommended the student to Georgia Tech.

Do mistakes like this hurt a grad student applicant, perhaps by showing they are applying to other programs, or do they only reflect poorly on the letter writer? In this case, the schools were all in the same (top) tier.

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FTR, she was admitted to two of the fours schools to which she applied. I only know for sure that one (to a place that she was not admitted) had a mistake. –  espertus Apr 30 at 19:36
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I've occasionally seen letters with incorrect graduate program names, and it's not something I'd worry about. It's never bothered me, and while I've seen other committee members point it out, I've never gotten the impression that they particularly cared. (They've pointed it out in the spirit of "Oops, someone messed up" rather than "Here's a negative factor we should keep in mind.")

There are two cases in which it could be harmful:

  1. If you name a substantially lower-ranked program, then the reader might wonder whether this low ranking influenced your recommendation. (Maybe you have several variants of the letter, and send more enthusiastic variants to lower-ranked programs.)

  2. If you include any comments about how suitable this specific program is for the applicant, then of course these comments will become worthless if you name the wrong school. However, most letters for applicants to graduate school don't include such comments, and even when they do it's rarely a crucial part of the letter. (It's particularly awkward if you send Harvard a letter talking about what a perfect fit Yale would be and how you have encouraged the applicant to go there if accepted.)

You mention the possibility of hurting the applicant by revealing where else they have applied. Theoretically, this could look weird or problematic if they've made eccentric choices about where to apply. (If a top program knows they're also applying to a much lower-ranked program, then the committee might take it as an admission of weakness or an indication that the applicant has a strong personal reason to go elsewhere.) However, I wouldn't worry about it in practice. It's expected that everyone will apply to a range of schools, and I don't recall ever having seen a case I thought would really worry admissions committees.

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Thanks. Neither of the two cases applied, fortunately. –  espertus Apr 30 at 19:37
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I cannot estimate how much, but I think this could harm the student's case: such mistakes make one think that the letter writer made them in a hurry, not caring too much. This can in principle mitigate the positive effect of the letter.

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