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I'm applying to UIUC and have asked 3 of my professors to write me recommendation letters. One professor, who I discussed my application with before extensively, wrote back to me after I was done with everything that he doesn't write a LOR to students who do not waive their right to view the letter at a later date, because if I don't trust my professors, I shouldn't be asking for their help.

I'm pretty dumbfounded by this, considering that he never mentioned this before and that I've never come across a situation like this. It's not even a trust issue! It's pure feedback. Why would you keep feedback from someone anyway?

So I waived my right to view his letter, but now I'm not sure how to write back to him. I don't want to write an uncomfortable email to the department I'm applying to - UIUC procedure - as to why I have to switch professors if he still refuses to write one. Is there a polite, apologetic way to say to him that I had not intended to convey any feelings of mistrust, and that it was to see what were my strengths and weaknesses from a professor's perspective? Or should I take the weird route and change professors, because he'll write me something less-than-glowing now?

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Answers to this question talk a little about why you should always waive your right to view recommendation letters. – Roger Fan Jan 13 at 6:11
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The issue here is that the FERPA law gives students the legal right to see their letters, unless the student waives that right. So the writer on their own cant assure the privacy of the letter by any means other than not agreeing to write letters for students who don't waive. – Noah Snyder Jan 13 at 14:03
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This is said at the thread linked in the first comment, but even if you didn't waive your right, many people would think it quite rude if you availed yourself of that right. Similarly for FOIA requests about grant applications. Or looking at tenure/promotion letters in places where it's illegal to waive your right to see them. – Noah Snyder Jan 13 at 14:06
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@Random832 Well, I won't write LORs if the student hasn't waived right to access. It's not that I have secrets to keep from the student, it is that I believe others assign more weight to a confidential recommendation. (I tell everyone that I won't write letters for students who have earned less than B in my classes, so I get to write good recommendations anyway.) – Bob Brown Jan 13 at 15:50
    
In fact - unless you feel strongly that you want to see other letters by others, you need to go and waive your right on all of them, not just this one. If I'm on the committee evaluating the candidate I'll see which letters you've agreed to waive the right and which you haven't. I'll put less weight on any letter that I see you retain the right to read, and I'll wonder why it is that you want to see the letters. If it comes down to a coin flip between you and another candidate, I won't go for the candidate who might be trying to hide something. – Joel Jan 14 at 1:44
up vote 10 down vote accepted

...wrote back to me after I was done with everything that he doesn't write a LOR to students who do not waive their right to view the letter at a later date, because if I don't trust my professors, I shouldn't be asking for their help.

In my opinion, your professor didn't need to say "because if I don't trust my professors, I shouldn't be asking for their help." That's his interpretation, not yours.

That being said, don't start to defend yourself even you feel you've been insulted. Look for the kernel of truth of what he's saying and agree with that part. This isn't the first time, nor the last, that someone is going to attribute a negative intent that you do not hold. To be successful in life, you have to be willing to pick your battles and not try to challenge every little misinterpretation someone may have about you. It's not worth it. Look at the problem from his perspective.

This Professor is very busy. Writing Recommendation Letters is just one more chore that he can say 'no' to (when he probably has a backlog of required work that can not wait and that he can't say 'no' to). And out of all the requests he gets, I'm sure that all the students expect a glowing recommendation from him, but in order for a recommendation letter to be valuable and interesting to its intended recipients, it actually needs to be as brutally honest as possible.

In other words, you should indeed acknowledge that he changed your mind, that you do trust him, and that his recommendation letter may probably be the only one taken seriously by its recipients once you waive your right to view it. You should further acknowledge that you know he's very busy, that he doesn't need to write you a recommendation letter, and that it's perfectly fine if he doesn't want to do it, but that you would be super grateful if he did (now that you've waived your right to review it).

In other words, you need to give him a way out, you can't guilt him into writing a letter, nor can you force him through arguments into writing a letter, because if you do any of that, that may taint his letter negatively and having a tainted letter will be a thousand times worse than having no letter or having to call and change the name of the Professor your recipients should expect a recommendation letter from.

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Excellent answer - you nailed the psychological dynamics at play here, and the general life advice to pick one's battles is terrific and applies to many more situations. – Dan Romik Jan 14 at 4:49

Just simply write down that it was your mistake not waiving your right to read LOR and ask him to write a letter. Don't wait too long to respond back to him, make your response succinct. Most importantly, do not explain to him why you wanted to see the letter in the email. Good luck.

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I don't see why you would say it was your mistake when no mistake was made? Simply say that this is not a problem and you've now waived the right. – Jack Aidley Jan 13 at 11:27
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"It was my mistake" is a polite way to defuse a potentially awkward situation @Jack Aidley – Oswald Veblen Jan 13 at 13:17
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I would discourage anyone from saying they've made a mistake when no mistake was made; especially in situations like this one where it is completely unnecessary. – Jack Aidley Jan 13 at 19:27
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The prof took it as sign of distrust. Whether or not the right interpretation, may depend on the point of view, but one could to some extent support it. Not seeing this as a possible interpretation can indeed be considered a mistake. Insisting on not having made a mistake in a situation whether the other side sees a mistake, might or might not be legitimate, but definitely is not building bridges. – Captain Emacs Jan 14 at 0:14
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@JackAidley: “It was my mistake” doesn’t just mean a situation like “I thought I had checked the box, but I hadn’t”. It also perfectly naturally covers a situation like “I didn’t think carefully about it, and went for the default option. Now that I have considered more, I realise that was the wrong decision.” I don’t think there is any dishonesty for the OP in saying “it was my mistake” in this case. – PLL Jan 14 at 10:27

Just let him know that you've waived your right to see it; I don't believe that you've offended him. It's fine to also ask him for feedback, but be aware that a recommendation letter and direct feedback are quite different and serve different purposes.

It's pure feedback. Why would you keep feedback from someone anyway?

Feedback is information from your supervisor about your performance that is given to you, primarily for your own benefit.

A recommendation letter is not pure feedback. The letter is information about your performance given to a third party, to help the third party make a judgment.

Another way in which feedback and recommendation letters differ is expectations and interpretation. When giving feedback, I try to be generous with both positive and negative observations, comparing a student's performance to what I view as the student's potential. The negative is often the most valuable part of the feedback, since it suggests ways to improve. In a recommendation letter, I am expected to compare the student not to his/her potential, but to other students. I focus much more on the positive, because I only agree to write a letter for a student who I see as above average -- and because there is an expectation that the letter will be strongly positive, so any negative comments are taken very seriously. At the same time, I focus more on achievements than on potential, since the letter will be used to make a material decision in the present.

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Not only is a recommendation letter not "pure" feedback, I don't think of it as feedback at all, because the subject of the letter shouldn't see it! – Oswald Veblen Jan 13 at 13:18
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@OswaldVeblen: Doesn't that create a hen-and-egg problem here: the student shouldn't know the content because it is not feedback. It is not feedback, because the student shouldn't see it? – cbeleites Jan 14 at 22:23
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@cbeleites: There are non-circular ways to look at it. The primary audience for the letter is the admissions committee. To allow for unfiltered commentary, and because the letter may include information that the professor would prefer not to share with the student, the letter is kept private from the student. Therefore, the professor writing the letter does not need to worry about the student as a secondary audience, and as such does not need to worry about the usefulness of the letter as feedback for the student. – Oswald Veblen Jan 16 at 19:51

I'm pretty dumbfounded by this, considering that he never mentioned this before and that I've never come across a situation like this. It's not even a trust issue! It's pure feedback. Why would you keep feedback from someone anyway?

First, let's be clear, you are not in a position to pass judgment on your professor for making you waiving your right to view the letter a condition to writing it. It is his right to make this a condition for any reason whatsoever (or even for no reason at all), and he is not required to provide any explanation. So, my main advice is that, whatever you write to him, make sure that it doesn't contain even a trace of the slightly judgmental attitude I am sensing in the question you posted here. Just say that you were not aware this would be an issue, acknowledge that you understand his request and that you have complied with it.

With that said, since you ask, there are some perfectly logical reasons why a professor would not want their student to view the letter they are writing. The most compelling reason for me would be the following: a letter, even a very positive one, contains statements about the subject of the letter that normally one would not be inclined to tell someone about themselves in person, both because it's awkward and because it is potentially counterproductive. The knowledge that the subject of the letter would not be reading it eliminates this problem, and provides me with reassurance that I can state my true opinions without fear that my writing would be affected (positively or negatively, and consciously or subconsciously) by any concerns about how the subject would receive those opinions. Again, I emphasize, this reasoning is valid for very positive letters (as well as more obviously for letters also expressing some negative opinions).

As an example, say I believed that a student was the greatest mathematical genius since Euler. I would certainly want to say that in a letter of recommendation, right? Now, you might think that I should have no reservations about telling that to the student as well. I mean, why not -- surely he/she would be flattered and feel great, right? Well, the thing is, hearing that you are the greatest genius since Euler may actually not be good for you, even if it's true. It could inflate that person's ego to the point of making them arrogant and obnoxious, and demotivate them from working hard since they would reason they can achieve great success with very little effort, and maybe have various other negative effects. So, you see, not wanting them to know this opinion that I hold, and not having to worry that whatever I write about them will be influenced by such concerns about secondary and unintended effects of my writing, are completely valid and legitimate reasons for me to request this kind of confidentiality.

The bottom line is, not waiving your right to view the letter is essentially tantamount to making a rather aggressive demand for "pure feedback" from the professor, taking advantage of the fact that he is bound by a promise to provide honest feedback about you to someone else. I think your professor is absolutely justified in refusing to cooperate. If you want feedback from him, ask him for it in the right way and at the right time, without tying your request to anything else related to external circumstances, so that he'll have the ability to consider your request without any pressure and decide if that's something he wishes to do.

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Further, apart form information about yourself, such a letter may well compare you to other students (which may be identifiable even if not named), and this is not the sort of thing one would usually want to tell people directly. – Tobias Kildetoft Jan 13 at 8:41
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@TobiasKildetoft whether or not the OP can read the LOR, wouldn't that be a violation of the classmates rights? OP (hypothetically my classmate) may have asked for a letter to be sent to the grad admissions committee. Doesn't mean I am ok with prof sharing info about me to grad admissions. – emory Jan 13 at 17:25
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@emory Individual comparisons are almost always with other current or former students for whom the writer has written letters. Unless a student tells me otherwise, I assume that if they're eager for me to write a recommendation letter on their behalf, they're okay with me giving graduate admisions committees information about them. – JeffE Jan 14 at 2:37
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-1 for accusing the OP of being "judgemental" over not seeing any prima facie value in what is, in essence, a culture of secrecy. And for the lengthy defense of that culture of secrecy. One wonders why FERPA would establish such a right in the first place if having secrecy is really so great in this context. – aroth Jan 14 at 7:26
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@aroth "culture of secrecy" is a use of loaded language. I'd refer to it as "system to facilitate honest communication of information" instead. To clarify, I intensely dislike the LOR system myself and its many flaws and abuses of various sorts. However, as Winston Churchill said of democracy, it seems to be the worst system except for all the others. And as for your "one wonders" comment, I'd say that one also wonders why the FERPA right you refer to has proved so ineffective if it is so great. IMO that suggests secrecy does have its uses. – Dan Romik Jan 14 at 17:52

An important thing to recognize (from here)

studies find that confidential letters contain comments about students that are less favorable than those in open access letters. However, reviewers of letters are also more likely to trust the information when they know that students have waived their access rights (10, 11). In plain terms, everyone is more comfortable when a student opts for a confidential letter, and such a letter will also likely be perceived as more trustworthy.

First: since many people reading the letter and deciding on your admission would be surprised by your unusual choice to not waive that right, I recommend changing the conditions for all the letters so that you waive your right.

Second: Send an email to the professor with something along the lines of:

I apologize. When I checked the box, I didn't understand what the implications were and why they were asking. I've waived my right to read the letter (and made the same change to the letters from other professors). Would you still be able to write me a positive letter in the time remaining?

This tells him 1: it wasn't a trust issue, which is reinforced by the fact you've changed all of the letters. 2: if he is genuinely still bothered, it gives him a way to say "look for someone else" without coming across as a jerk. You don't want to make him feel like he's trapped into writing the letter.

Do not say: "the reason I wanted to see the letter was ..." as that's going to come across as making excuses.

Alternately - send the same message without that final question.

I apologize. When I checked the box, I didn't understand what the implications were and why they were asking. I've waived my right to read letters from all my references. By way of apology, I'll ask someone else to write this letter for me, but I hope you will be able to write a positive letter in the future.

This means that for this letter you don't have to worry at all that you've offended him. It gives him time before the next letter to relax about it. And it shows you are willing to accept the consequences of the mistake without complaint.

Which option you go with may depend on your impression of the instructor.

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I think by not waiving the right and not telling the prof that you won't at the time of the letter request, you're putting the prof in an awkward situation. It's happened to me, and I've taken to specifying that I only write confidential letters when a request comes to me.

I recommend writing the the professor, and just flat out saying that you were unaware of stigmas surrounding non-confidential letters, that you've now waived your right to view, and that you hope you haven't made him uncomfortable.

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In addition to recommending a perfunctory apology for an error in failing to waive-the-right...

... as other answers have mentioned, these letters are addressed to a different audience than the student. In addition to issues of ego and such, there is an even larger issue of the huge difference of context of a grad admissions committee (nowhere near 20...) and applicants (typically very near 20). Words mean vastly different things to different people. What is clear and sane in one context can be perceived badly in another.

No, it is not possible to write a single narrative that nicely imparts the same message to all parties... though I occasionally remember that there is a label in "rhetoric" for the capacity to say something that is sufficiently ambiguous, though not sounding overtly so, that it pleases everyone, no matter their disagreements. In any case, this rhetorical device is not what you want your letters of recommendation to be. You do want effective communication to the admissions committee. The compromises involved to make the statement communicate to you what the writer would want would make it fail to communicate necessary things to the committee... I claim.

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Don't take his comment personally. He has a blanket policy on not writing non-confidential letters, and he's explaining the reason behind it. It isn't aimed at you as an individual.

I would write him back with no sense of awkwardness or hesitation. My sense of the situation is that he is offering you a free choice: To waive your right and get a LOR, or not waive it and not get one (from him). I have every confidence he'll respond positively if you go with the first choice.

This is obviously a common enough situation that he's worked out a general approach to it.

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I've already picked an answer by Stephan Branczyk, but I figured I'd explain here what I actually ended up doing.

I wrote back to the professor:

Dear [Professor's name here]

I did not intend to convey any feelings of mistrust. It was my assumption that this would not be a problem based on my other letters of recommendation. I completely understand your viewpoint, and have made the necessary changes. I would greatly appreciate it if you could write me a recommendation letter for my application.

Best regards [My name and contact details]

Like most of you recommended, I didn't try to imply I resented his implication that I didn't trust my professors, and respectfully just did what he asked. I'm still not going to pretend I really understand why this waiving thing is so important, because even if the audience or purpose is different, it is still feedback - an analysis of the student's strengths and weaknesses, and their aptitude, scope and overall mannerisms. However, to each their own. That's why the option is there.

I just wish he'd told me sooner, because I've never had this issue before. I've had professors send me the letter separately for my approval, and their idea is that if they didn't want to recommend me, they'd just refuse. Getting into graduate programs is already nerve-racking and complicated.

But anyway, I found out that this professor is careful about these kinds of things because of past experiences, and that some students have acted less than appropriately with regards to graduate programs and LORs. So he acted according to his discretion. I spoke to another faculty member who knows him, and he was very understanding, and said he would help me get through to the professor.

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