Last year one of the recommendation letter writers wrote incorrect information about my character and this was the reason I was rejected when I applied to graduate school.

After hearing about the rejection the professor realized his mistake and told me about it. Basically, he wrote I had serious mental health issues, but this was about another student.

I will apply again this year, what should I do about this error? Can the professor simply mention this on his new recommendation? How will the committee view an error as serious as this?

  • 14
    I moved some content you provided in the comments into the body of the question. I think that information is of critical importance. Is there a reason you deleted it?
    – StrongBad
    Commented Jun 4, 2018 at 22:53
  • 15
    Is the professor senile? Seriously?
    – smci
    Commented Jun 5, 2018 at 1:56
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    Not a lawyer, but maybe worth investigating some legal compensation for a whole year wasted.
    – camden_kid
    Commented Jun 5, 2018 at 8:12
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    @dgrat I don't think this is a 'small' flaw. The professor told incorrect information about a student, and because of that the student was rejected. That is a serious mistake. Commented Jun 5, 2018 at 17:14
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    The mistake notwithstanding, it is horrifying to me that a professor (i.e., not a mental health professional) would write in a letter that someone has mental health issues. This in itself should be grounds for disciplinary action. If the professor is somehow privy to knowledge about a mental condition, it is irrelevant to the subject at hand (ability to work) and constitutes disclosing private medical information. If not, then he/she is diagnosing a student with no qualifications. WTF?
    – user48714
    Commented Jun 6, 2018 at 13:28

3 Answers 3


Mixing up two students in a letter of recommendation is a serious mistake. Erroneously suggesting that a student has serious mental health issues when in fact (1) they don't and (2) you don't think they do, is an even bigger mistake. Apart from choosing a new letter writer (one who will be more careful attending to details), there is nothing you can do. If you ask him to write letters again, I would remind him of his past mistake (be gentle) and let him know which schools are repeat applications. Only he knows what he said and he will be capable of figuring out the best way to handle it (e.g., a disclaimer in the new letter, a phone call, a blood offering).

This type of mistake is probably extremely rare. Sending the wrong letter probably happens, although I have never had the name in the letter not match the application. mixing up two students while sending a bad letter seems crazy. Most people don't write bad reference letters. When writing even a luke warm reference letter, I am very aware of the student I am writing it for. I cannot imagine mixing up two students in that way.

In terms of fixing it, if decisions have been made, there is probably no fixing it this year. As for next year, the admissions committee may not remember you. If the letter was so memorably bad that they do remember you, if the new letter explains what happened, all will probably be fine (i.e., the old letter will not hurt you).

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    Hopefully, if the same professor writes another letter, he will explicitly acknowledge and apologize for his earlier mistake, just in case the previous letter was memorably bad.
    – JeffE
    Commented Jun 4, 2018 at 22:52
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    @JeffE I would hope at a minimum the professor apologizes in the new letter, but it is the type of thing I would also pick up the phone for and call someone (not really sure who).
    – StrongBad
    Commented Jun 4, 2018 at 22:59
  • "If the letter was so memorably bad that they do remember you, if the new letter explains what happened, all will probably be fine (i.e., the old letter will not hurt you)." Wow. It must be a weird feeling wishing for your recommendation letter to be even more damning than it already was!
    – user541686
    Commented Jun 5, 2018 at 3:06
  • I'm not sure how much weight would a letter from the same professor would carry, even if it is an extremely positive one, given that in the letter the prof. should apologize for such an unbelievable mistake.
    – PsySp
    Commented Jun 6, 2018 at 8:42

I am flabbergasted that the Professor here would not take the initiative to correct his own mistake. Writing a letter of recommendation for the wrong student ---and making negative remarks that do not apply, that cost the student a graduate position--- is a huge stuff-up. Any decent marginally-competent person would be mortified at making this mistake and would immediately take action to correct it, without having to be asked. (It might be too late for the admissions process that occurred, but the least the Professor could do is to write to the affected universities and correct the record, so that it doesn't negatively affect you in future applications.) It is good that he told you about the error, but that is really insufficient without him taking some further action to correct the error.

If this Professor has not already taken it upon himself to correct his error by writing back to those universities, to at least correct the record, then he is a total deadbeat. You should consider putting in a formal complaint to your university. This could also be legally actionable as negligence, breach of contract, defamation, etc., and it reflects terribly on the university that the student would be the one to have to take the initiative here.

If you are more forbearing than me then you should take Strongbad's excellent and sensible advice of approaching the matter gently, to get a good reference for next time. However, if you are as pissed-off about this situation as I am reading about it, and you decide you want to go full scorched-Earth, here is an alternative course of action: Speak to a lawyer and get him to write a letter to the university putting them on notice that their negligence/defamation has caused actionable damage to you, and that you expect them to take action to "mitigate that damage". (They will know what this means.) Make an appointment with a senior administrator at the university (e.g., their legal counsel, vice-chancellor's office, etc.), and turn up with a senior support-person (e.g., a lawyer, or if this is too expensive, at least a middle-aged person who knows how to handle these situations). Reiterate that the university has been negligent and has defamed you to other institutions, and this has caused actionable damage to you. Ask them for suggestions of how they intend to go about mitigating the damage to you, and make sure these are accompanied by guarantees. Advise them that if the damage to you is not mitigated by a successful application in the next round of grad-school entry, you will be left with no choice but to make a formal complaint to the relevant university Ombudsman and take legal action to recover damages.

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    +1 -- this professor effectively cost the student (at least) a year off their career for no reason. While I do not know if legal action is likely to be successful, it does seem that in justice, the student would be able to do more than just passively wait out the year.
    – cag51
    Commented Jun 5, 2018 at 3:26
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    It is unbelievable isn't it! I think legal action on this would be a slam-dunk --- there is clear negligence and defamation (false negative claims about the student) and an obvious causal link to damages.
    – Ben
    Commented Jun 5, 2018 at 3:29
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    I have no idea if this would work. The letter is probably confidential so I am not sure what proof the student has. My guess is the other university would not claim the letter was a direct cause of the damages. Finally the student asked the prof to write the letter. That said, I agree this is a massive screw up.
    – StrongBad
    Commented Jun 5, 2018 at 11:46
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    That is why it is important to seek legal advice, from someone familiar with the laws of defamation, negligence, etc., in the jurisdiction at issue. A confidential letter can easily be obtained via discovery in a litigation (or pre-litigation), and it is unlikely to be relevant that the student asked the professor to write a letter of recommendation (certainly not the letter).
    – Ben
    Commented Jun 5, 2018 at 12:28
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    Possibly, but that is one of the things about that kind of mistake - it's the cover-up that kills you. Although the initial mistake is a large one, it is the failure to take any action to rectify it once known that really reflects worst on the university. In those situations, you just have to summon up the courage to walk into your boss's office and say, "I F-ed up!"
    – Ben
    Commented Jun 6, 2018 at 23:57

I feel some answers here are pretty unhelpful. This is why I would like to clearify some things.

In terms of fixing it, if decisions have been made, there is probably no fixing it this year.

In some countries like Germany there is. It is evident that the selection process is invalid in this case, because the selection was performed based on wrong assumptions. If you call the comitee and clearify that the letter was for another person and they still do not reconsider you, there is a fair chance that after suing them, you may get the position.

As for next year, the admissions committee may not remember you.

This is one of the worst tips I ever read somewhere. Seems like, some people like playing bingo with their life and risk life time defamation.

Not a lawyer, but maybe worth investigating some legal compensation for a whole year wasted.

I do not know in which third world countries this would be possible, but it sounds unbearable if you can get a compensation for a hypothetical loss. How to measure the amount of this compensation? Maybe the comitee wouldn't have considered you even if the letter would be awesome. E.g. in germany a legal compensation in this case would be close to impossible according to (§ 253 Abs. 1 BGB). Nevertheless, in some countries like the USA everything seems possible.

Maybe there is a way to get the compensation if the comitee prepares a letter that you would have gotten the offer if the letter did not screw up everything. With this letter, Op can sue the professor, but even then Op has to prove that the professor was doing it with bad intention. I am not sure how it is in the USA, there maybe any flaw is enough to pay some thousand dollars. Nevertheless, I guess chances are bad there too in such a case.

  • 2
    This would not be the first time in history that a court has had to consider a civil action where the losses are uncertain - they are quite used to that.
    – Ben
    Commented Jun 6, 2018 at 12:17
  • I think a lot of what you read about weird US court decision in papers is exaggerated, but I am assuming this based off one case I know of.
    – PStag
    Commented Jun 6, 2018 at 13:13
  • "I do not know in which third world countries this would be possible, but it sounds unbearable if you can get a compensation for a hypothetical loss" - have you heard of "loss of future earnings"? I think it's a lot easier to think of compensation cases concerned with estimated future losses than those with actual incurred losses.
    – arboviral
    Commented Jun 7, 2018 at 7:57
  • At least in Germany a "recommendation letter" has not such formal legal constrains like an "employer's reference". This would be indeed a problem. Maybe in the USA there is no difference between these two. Despite the fact that I would like to have a compensation for such a case, I think it will be hard to get one :/ However, it would be better if the application process would be more transparent.
    – user75308
    Commented Jun 7, 2018 at 8:14

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