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I asked one of my professors whom I've known for 2 years to write a recommendation for me now that I'm planning for graduate school— about 3 years later after he left to another university. He asked for my full name, and just copied a letter from the web and sent it to me via email. I expected to get an accurate letter that highlights my strong points and improve my chances of getting to a good school; instead, I got a banal letter that doesn't set me apart from your average student, and which its copy can easily be found online.

I'm reluctant to put his name on the list of Referees in my application now, but I can't find a third professor other than him who is willing to write a letter for me.

  • Would his letter hurt my chances of getting accepted to a good school? Even if one of the other 2 letters was relatively stronger(slightly better) compared to this one?

  • Can I get a letter from a professor who didn't teach me? Or a professor from another university(a family friend)?

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[...facepalm...] –  JeffE May 21 at 13:09
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3 years passed since he left for another university and most probably he doesn't remember many details to point them out in your letter. So it would be better if you helped him with writing. Just ask politely and I am sure he will not reject. –  artalexan May 21 at 20:50

3 Answers 3

up vote 24 down vote accepted

A professor whose idea of a good or even appropriate letter of recommendation is to copy a letter off of the internet and send it to you is a knucklehead. (That is a technical term: I am after all an academic professional. I could have used stronger language...) At least, he is in this respect: in the comments the OP mentions that he got a job at Waterloo, which is a university with a high international reputation. So he must have some other good things going for him. In the fullness of time, I have to believe that he will learn how to write a reasonable recommendation letter.

But that's not your problem. I would advise you to look at the fact that the professor gave the letter directly to you -- which is itself irregular and, in certain circles, inappropriate -- as a real blessing. He could have just sent this miserable excuse for a letter quietly to all the places you're applying to, and you would be the one (in the short term, at least) to suffer the consequences. I strongly disagree that you should work further with this guy to write a better letter. (In particular, I vehemently disagree that you should write the letter yourself. As I have said before on this site, I find that "immoral and wrong" -- a recommendation letter is a commissioned expert opinion. Looking over the opinion desired by the person you have been commissioned to evaluate and deciding whether or not it requires any modification is not how expert opinions work. But I've made my feelings on this moral issue clear enough already. Here let me push the practical side of this: as a student, you cannot write for yourself a good recommendation letter. There are components of such a letter that require expertise and personal experience that you necessarily lack.) It is time to start fresh and get a letter from a new person.

The part of your response that jumps out at me is "I can't find a third professor other than him who is willing to write a letter for me." That's the real issue here, and I hope it will serve as a warning to other students in your position. All undergraduates should be thinking -- from their first year -- about building good relationships with their instructors that will lead to multiple people being able to write them strong recommendation letters. It is all too easy to go through an undergraduate program -- even, perhaps especially, to excel at it -- while having very little contact with the faculty outside of the classroom and regular coursework. That is certainly a mistake.

Okay, though: what do you do? You ask whether someone who has not taught you in a course can write you a letter. The answer is certainly yes. You want the letter writer to (i) have stature in the academic community and in the particular area you're applying to, and (ii) have something meaningful to say about your academic background, skills, work ethic, and prospects for success in graduate school. Someone that you have done research with can speak to aspects of that as well or better as people who have taught you in a course in which you quietly got an A. In a pinch -- as you seem to be -- I would advise you to try to make contacts with people who satisfy condition (i) and try to rapidly achieve (ii) with them. Thus for instance if you've done any research at all in the field you're intending to study, you could send a paper (or code, or interesting data, or whatever) to an expert in that field and mention that you'd like a recommendation letter. This is a bit irregular, but if your work is solid, why not? I would do it.

I strongly recommend that you work harder to find the right person to write you a strong letter than to have further dealings with someone who has already proven to be hopelessly inept at the job.

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+1 for the knucklehead comment. Any graduate student reading this: take note of how you would feel if this happened to you, store that feeling somewhere for a few years, and pull it back out when a future student asks you for a letter. Doing something like this is pathetic, unhelpful, mean-spirited, and simply wrong. –  eykanal May 21 at 23:17
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+1 for knucklehead, and another +1 for All undergraduates should be thinking -- from their first year -- about building good relationships with their instructors that will lead to multiple people being able to write them strong recommendation letters. –  JeffE May 21 at 23:38

Look at it from his point of view: He most likely gets dozens of requests for recommendation letters.

I would suggest making his life easier for him by saving him writing time. If he's the kind of guy that would copy & paste a letter from the internet, he's the kind of guy that would let you write your own recommendation and sign it for you. You don't have to write the entire letter for him (although this is possible). It's not immoral or "wrong" as the professor has to sign off on it and if the letter contains something he doesn't agree with he can just refuse.

The tactful way to approach this would be to reply to him and say that you appreciate his letter but wanted to make a strong case for your strengths in XYZ, and therefore would it be possible to add these paragraphs to the letter.

Also, yes, you can get recommendations from family/friends but I would suggest that you disclose your relationship. I know someone that got into grad school with a recommendation written by a former classmate.

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While I personally agree with you, many members who are much more experienced in the LoR circuit strongly recommend against writing your own letter. –  xLeitix May 21 at 8:23
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I'd just add that it's ridiculous for someone to take a letter off the web and use it "because they get many requests". It's always possible to just say no. –  Suresh May 21 at 9:29
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@Valentin Are you located in Europe? I have certainly talked to european professors who have never written a letter, themselves or otherwise. The entire LoR thing is just not an established practice around here. (things seem to be changing, though) –  xLeitix May 21 at 10:29
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He probably just has little to no recollection of you. I wouldn't ask for another one. –  TheMathemagician May 21 at 15:37
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If I'm reading the question correctly, you knew him for two years, but it's been three years since he's seen you. I wouldn't be at all surprised if he doesn't have a strong recollection of you without specific prompting. –  Bobson May 21 at 20:06

Your resume, statement of purpose, and any work you submit in your application package are your part. Writing your own LoR would be redundant. Letters of recommendation are other's contribution in support of your bid. They should be written by those who have confidence in your work. If you can't come up with another professor to support you, I recommend taking post-bacc classes, doing research, and doing your best work in the coming year. In your applications next year, hopefully you will have three professors to support you.

Incidentally, when submitting your application, you should elect not to review your letters of recommendation. This shows that you have confidence in your abilities, work, and reputation among your professors.

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