I'm about to start a 5th year Master's program in CS at my university (one extra year after B.S. for a M.S.). I've also been looking at applying to grad schools for a PhD program, and the main thing that I've been worried about is recommendation letters.

I know one professor somewhat well (took two classes with her, one of which was a project class where I presented to her) and I think she would be willing to write a rec letter. However, she's fairly well known in her field and I don't know if that makes it harder to get a rec from her.

But, most of the colleges I'm looking at for grad school need three letters. I've had good grades throughout my undergrad, mostly 3.9 and 4.0s. Because I was fairly comfortable with my classes, I rarely went to office hours. As a result, I don't think any of the professors who've taught me know anything about me other than that I was in their class and that I did well.

I'm totally unsure now about how to proceed. Is it normal for professors to be asked for rec letters by students they only maybe recognize? Do they usually say yes or no? What are my options?

  • 2
    Very specific question. I even know professors in which you wrote an M.Sc. thesis, a scientific article and obviously way to more, and still, advisor is reluctant to give recommendation letter "as we should write an article in a journal with impact factor >6, otherwise no letter".
    – user91300
    Commented Aug 4, 2018 at 6:27

2 Answers 2


It's one thing to ask (and I agree with @Buffy that you should), it's quite another to receive a meaningful letter of recommendation. You want to make sure that each letter does its job. If you only get a stock-standard letter that is without detail, effectively stating that the author of the letter had no personal knowledge of your skills and potential for graduate studies beyond that of a subject leader, then this won't make your application packet as effective as it can be.

Let me tell you a story. In the early days of my career, we were assigned undergraduates to advise. The university in which I worked had a stupid rule that stated that advisers were required to provide a letter of recommendation for each of their advisees. Now, I was advising about 200 students. I could identify about ten percent; all the rest appeared as a mass of undifferentiated extracellular debris. I wasn't the only one in this situation. So, how did we get around application time when this great big tidal wave of recommendation letter requests would reach us? We didn't have the time or inclination to compose individual letters for the great majority of our advisees, so we issued stock letters in the following form:

I have known salutation surname for three years during which time I was his academic adviser. At university, the academic advisers have the following responsibilities: responsibility1, responsibility2 and responsibility3.

During the time I have known him/her, salutation surname was a solid student. I believe that he will be an asset in your organisation/programme.

Let me tell you, if you think assessors don't know how to construct and interpret coded language, think again. Such lacklustre references as above don't do much for the application.

If you have limited options as I think you describe, I would ask the professor if he would be happy to sign a letter of recommendation that I prepared. This would allow me (1) to prevent the type of limp reference letter I just demonstrated; (2) to control the amount and frame of the information I wish to present; and (3) to remind the professor of the type of meaningful interaction or effect his or her instruction had on me.

Of course, I would not lie.

Some professor allow this. I have allowed it on the understanding that the student prepares a draft and leaves the rest of the steps -- editing, printing, signing and submission -- to me.

Good luck!


The only guarantee is that if you don't ask, you don't get the letter. So ask.

I'm sure your situation is common in large places and it is good to find ways to "stand out" with at least a few professors as you go along, but that is too late for you now if time is short.

But ask in person, during office hours, and be prepared to remind the professor of your past association even if it is only a little. If you ask by email it is too easy to just say no, sorry. But if you get turned down in person you might also get some advice about how to proceed (along with the disappointment).

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