I recently applied for a national scholarship at my university. My application was accepted internally as one of few to be sent to the organization hosting the scholarship. However, the people screening applications at my university were slightly concerned about one of my reference letters from my last advisor, and sent it to me to show me what he wrote (I'm pretty sure those letters are supposed to be confidential, but that's beside the point). A brief summary of the letter is that I'm only slightly above average, and 1/4 of the letter is about his previous research accomplishments. I can't change referees since my application has already been screened. My question is, can I ask my previous advisor to improve his letter of recommendation?

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    If the letter was supposed to be confidential, you should had refused to read it even if the people at the Uni sent it to you... – Nick S Nov 12 at 21:51
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    Are you asking him to lie? will a replacement remove the previous letter? Did he have justification for what he wrote? Grades?: Attendance? Lateness? Attitude? – Solar Mike Nov 12 at 21:52
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    @SolarMike, I have experience that it is more complex than that. Some people don't understand very well how their words will be interpreted. This can be true in general, but especially so if it happens to be the case that the prof came from a different culture. Sometimes what seems like praise to a writer, may not seem that way to a reader. – Buffy Nov 12 at 21:56
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    I'm afraid that asking for the facts to be better than they are is doomed... – paul garrett Nov 13 at 1:00
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    Why on earth are they asking you about this? – JeffE Nov 13 at 13:13
up vote 40 down vote accepted

You can certainly ask, and might be successful, or not. It is impossible to say. But a better approach might be for the scholarship people to ask the professor for a better letter on your behalf, explaining the reasoning and perhaps the fact that his is an outlier.

Having an advocate may be more effective in a situation like this. Another professor might also prevail upon your advisor, but it would be impossible to hide the fact that you'd seen the letter.

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    That's a great suggestion. I'll see what I can do with the scholarship people, thanks! – Phys Mate Nov 12 at 22:06
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    It is not unknown to be phoned by HR to elicit more, private, detail about the candidate that is not in the reference letter... Especially interesting when the HR person phoning is also an ex-student who remembers their lecturer and the course! – Solar Mike Nov 12 at 22:09

(I'm pretty sure those letters are supposed to be confidential, but that's beside the point). ...

Actually, it is not. You may have signed a waiver when you applied for the position. If so, you have absolutely no recourse to ask for anything. If so, the person who sent the recommendation to you may be in violation of privacy guidelines that were been established for your previous advisor as part of his/her submission process.

When I would be the advisor whose letter was submitted under a waiver of right to see by the student and I discovered that letter had been disclosed back to the student, I would be raising holy heck to the Chair of the Committee if not the Chair of the Department if not further up the chain.

As noted, your first call was to refuse to review the letter until you had the "pretty clear" part clarified beyond a reasonable doubt. Until such a time, you best not be asking anyone anything about changing the letter.

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    It would have been best to not read the letter, unless you had the writer's consent to let you read it. Second best is to act as far as possible as though you had not read it. – Patricia Shanahan Nov 13 at 4:16
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    The country isn't mentioned. If the person asking is based in the UK they have a statutory right to see any material that has been produced about them by any institution under Data Protection laws. If an institution refuses to provide this one may file a subject access request to force them to – Persistence Nov 14 at 0:47
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    Interesting. After some thought, I can believe the default in the US is the same. One must waive one's right to view a letter. The OP should at least have known. – Jeffrey J Weimer Nov 14 at 2:25

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