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Most graduate applications provide a choice for applicants to view their recommendation letters at a later date. There is a mention of some US mandate alongside.

  • Is it a better option to forgo this choice in the application? Will the recommending professor feel more secure then?
  • What is the procedure for the applicant to see his/her recommendation letters? Does the university readily show them when asked?
  • How ethical is it for the student to ask for the same, especially, for example, after being rejected from a program?
  • 2
    I suggest that this question should be tagged to show the countries where things work this way. It is certainly not universal to expect that the student should not see the content. I've been dealing with German Arbeitszeugnisse (roughly "certificate of job performance") and letters of recommendation from middle europe and Italy, and over here they are usually given to the student who can then attach them to their application. Coming from this culture, waiving the right to see the LoR sounds to me like asking a student to waive their right to see the marked written exam and their final mark. – cbeleites Jan 14 '16 at 22:04
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The secret to getting a good letter from someone is making sure they're going to write you a good letter before you have them write one. You should never need to look at a letter someone wrote for you, as you should basically know what they're going to write without ever having looked at it. In most cases, if someone doesn't feel comfortable writing a 100% positive letter about you, they'll let you know when you ask them and recommend you get someone else to write the letter.

With that in mind, it is definitely better to forgo this choice, for the reason you suggested... people will likely feel more comfortable to write freely and honestly when they know you won't read it. Regarding the procedure, I'm not familiar with the mandate, but if it is a US mandate, then they'll probably show it to you after a lot of waiting. It is definitely uncommon for someone to ask to see a letter written about them, and it likely would be looked down upon.

  • 38
    If someone doesn't feel comfortable writing a 100% positive letter about you, they SHOULD let you know when you ask; unfortunately, they don't always. Professors are human, too; some of us have trouble saying no. To be safe, it's best to swallow your ego and ask directly: "Are you willing to write me a strong recommendation letter? Do you have any concerns?" – JeffE Apr 17 '12 at 13:59
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Among the faculty members I've known (at US research universities), there's a widespread feeling that recommendation letters should be completely confidential unless the writer chooses otherwise, and that viewing them using FERPA is unethically taking advantage of a legal loophole. Almost all the students check the waiver box, and if someone doesn't, then the letter writer is more likely to assume it was by accident than on purpose.

In this context, my advice is:

  1. You should always check the box. If your recommenders believe you may look at the letters later, they will probably write weaker, vaguer letters. (For example, the most compelling letters often involve comparisons with other students, which may be omitted if you'll be reading the letter.)

  2. If you are not checking the box on purpose, you should say so explicitly. If you do this silently, people may assume it was an accident, and then if they learn later that you viewed the letters, they will be more offended than if you had announced this plan in advance. (And they may actually find out, since the staff who handle your request may find it troubling and leak the information even if they aren't supposed to.)

  3. You would learn less than you might expect from looking at the letters. It's remarkably hard to judge letters out of context, without having seen other letters from the same people, and it's not likely you'll discover a clear reason for your rejection. If anything, it might mislead you: you might decide that Professor X was damaging your chances by being insufficiently enthusiastic, without realizing that Professor X is never enthusiastic and in context this letter was viewed as very positive.

I think the fundamental worry many students have is of a terrible letter, a single letter that ruins what would otherwise have been a successful application. This can happen, but I see an example only once every few years. And even in those cases, it often looks like it should have been predictable to the applicant. (For example, if you have had difficulties with someone in the past but things seem better now, don't ask for a letter without a serious discussion of how they think things stand now.) So I wouldn't worry too much: the chances you could dramatically improve your application by substituting a letter are small.

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    There are some simple precautions, too, that students soliciting letters can take. Don't ask for a letter from someone whose direct protege/student you'd be competing against, for example. Comparisons are everything... – paul garrett Aug 15 '14 at 2:35
  • "If your recommenders believe you may look at the letters later, they will probably write weaker, vaguer letters. (For example, the most compelling letters often involve comparisons with other students, which may be omitted if you'll be reading the letter.)" This makes a lot of sense. – gwg Sep 21 '15 at 22:51
  • "If you do this silently, people may assume it was an accident, and then if they learn later that you viewed the letters, they will be more offended" -- funny how people are most offended when their own serious mistakes come back to bite them ;-) That's why it's polite to be explicit -- you protect them from the opportunity to make such an elementary error as overlooking that you haven't waived. – Steve Jessop Jan 13 '16 at 10:18
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You should definitely waive access to your letters of recommendation. If you don't, the people reading the letters have reason to suspect that the writers, knowing that you might see the letter, would omit (or at least soften) any negative information that they would otherwise have included. As a result, your failure (or refusal) to waive access can weaken the letters in the eyes of the readers.

  • Indeed, not waiving may subliminally create a suspicion that you have something to hide, etc., and are attempting to prevent the letter writers from hinting at whatever-it-is. – paul garrett Aug 15 '14 at 2:33
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I was explicitly told by my recommending professor that you're supposed to waive your right to see the letters. In particular they said that it might not matter if your recommender is a respected individual with an established career in the field, but it definitely matters if your recommender does not carry that weight.

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