I asked a professor for letters of recommendation for 7 universities. I was able to view his review for one particular university and it was extremely, unnecessarily negative.

When I confronted him, he denied submitting this review. However, on comparing the negative letter and the actual letter that he forwarded, I found that the first paragraph of the letters are the same except that the adjectives are all negative. I have no way of knowing if it was him who submitted this. If so, there is a possibility all the universities received this negative letter.

What do I do?

  • 4
    What do I do? Seek better referees and never ask him for a letter of recommendation again.
    – user2768
    Jan 18, 2019 at 10:29
  • 1
    Personally, I would always ask to see the letter. I have also often had people ask for input to the letter and then I gave them a thoughtful list of bullets including some granular facts and examples drawn from our interaction. I realize there is this fetish of unseen letters in academia, but that is not how it is done in the business world and I feel more a part of that world than the herr doktor professor academic world.
    – guest
    Jan 18, 2019 at 13:53
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    Should the reference letter reflect your abilities or your "perceived" abilities?
    – Solar Mike
    Jan 18, 2019 at 15:02
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    Did he say more about the part that "[h]e asserted that it wasn't him who submitted this review"? Did he say that he submitted a different letter (i.e. with more positive adjectives), written by himself, submitted by himself? Do you think he doesn't dare to tell you that he wrote a negative letter? (In that case, Monika's answer isn't really fitting the problem, since there was no "mistake" on his side, nor that he didn't write the letter himself)
    – Mark
    Jan 18, 2019 at 16:23
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    "on comparing the negative letter and the actual letter that he forwarded" I assume the "negative letter" is the one you saw as submitted, but what is "the actual letter that he forwarded"? Is it a letter he showed you and that he claims was the one he submitted?
    – JRN
    Jan 19, 2019 at 2:45

2 Answers 2


I think the question is unclear, so I'll try to cover all the scenarios.

  • If the professor is claiming that he submitted the positive letter and someone sabotaged it, then he should be very concerned that someone is falsifying letters. He should take the lead in helping you get to the bottom of this. If he says "oh well, someone sabotaged my letter but I don't care", then I would question his honesty.

  • If the professor is claiming that he did not author the letter at all, then it would seem that you've caught him in a lie. (This doesn't really make sense to me; doesn't the letter have his name on it?) Best to find another referee; if possible, you could even try to switch out the letters on your in-progress applications.

  • If you're not sure which of these is the case, you could express your concern that a letter was incorrectly submitted on their behalf, and ask for their help in fixing it. Or, if you have another referee, you could just try to swap them out without involving this person.


You should contact this professor again and ask him to inform the committee or school that the LOR had been submitted by mistake and asking to revoke the letter ( I think this is the best case), so you can select new referees. If he did not do that or refuse for any reason, you have to save your reputation by your own and forwarding all the emails that showed he didn't write the LOR on his own, you can ask the committee to revoke the letter, I suspect that the second one could work, however, this is the last option. If all of that doesn't work out, simply, you have to look for new positions, and please be careful before choosing a person and don't waive your right to see what the referee had written about you, but if you genuinely trust your referee you can waive which is the best.

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    I don't think the suggestion at the end is good advice. Not waiving the right to see the letter typically ensures the letter will be generic and won't carry much weight. Jan 18, 2019 at 13:06
  • I think in the application you have the right to waive or not to see what the referee had written, and I do think that how the OP discovered the negative LOR.
    – user103209
    Jan 18, 2019 at 13:23
  • your comment could be sound and I recommend of course ( that's why I edited my answer) if you genuinely trust the referee that why we have to be careful of selecting the referee who believes in us.
    – user103209
    Jan 18, 2019 at 13:26
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    I agree with Andrés that students should waive their right to see letters of recommendation. I must add that referees have an obligation to discuss a negative or even neutral recommendation with the student and give the student an opportunity to withdraw the request before such a letter is ever written.
    – Bob Brown
    Jan 18, 2019 at 15:07
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    @Monkia Andrés E. Caicedo said it all: "Not waiving the right to see the letter typically ensures the letter will be generic and won't carry much weight. " My comment addresses what I consider to be an obligation of the referee.
    – Bob Brown
    Jan 18, 2019 at 15:19

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