I recently took an exam in my master's program where I missed just enough points to change my grade from A+ to A (in my country, these show up differently on a transcript). I intend on applying to some extremely competitive PhD programs (otherwise I would not be concerned with this grade difference), and given my undergraduate background, this is a course where I am probably expected to get an A+. Furthermore, I am essentially depending on a letter of recommendation from the professor of this course.

After having already looked at the exam with my professor, and hearing him explain the grade justification, I believe I did not yet make a well thought-out argument as to why I should have been given certain points.

My question

Should I bother emailing this professor with my legitimate argument, or simply let it go? I will probably get a rec letter from him either way and while I want an A+ and genuinely to think my work on the exam deserved it, I don't want to annoy my professor and make his opinion of me depreciate.

Edit: In this scenario, I feel that an error was made on the part of the test-writer where a question could've been reasonably interpreted in two distinct ways. I was told that because I was the only person to make this particular interpretation, that it was an unreasonable interpretation. I strongly believe that this was not an unreasonable interpretation, and having these be the only missed points on the entire semester is infuriating.

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    That's not how it works. – Evorlor Jan 21 at 13:59
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    Do you care more about the A+ or the recommendation letter? Because if you go begging for the A+ you almost surely wont get that lettersince this request makes you look like a choosing beggar, which is generally something frowned upon. – Giacomo Alzetta Jan 21 at 16:14
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    As a professor, I encourage you to reframe your thoughts: you didn't "miss just enough points to change [your] grade from an A+ to an A"; rather, you earned enough points to rise to an A but not quite enough to rise to an A+. It's amazing how this one detail can result in a huge shift in perspective. – Greg Martin Jan 21 at 17:51
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    You made a case,he gave his explanation. Unless it's a blatant over sight, like he thought you wrote 2+2=5 when you didn't, you should let it go. Approaching him a second time will only annoy him at this point. – Issel Jan 21 at 19:33
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    "And given my undergraduate background, this is a course where I am probably expected to get an A+"... FYI, if you're in the US at least, what you're really expected of is to have a glowing recommendation letter, not a glowing A+. – Mehrdad Jan 22 at 9:53

Let it go.

You discussed this before, he made his arguments and it is unlikely that he will change his mind. It isn't only up to you to make a good argument for the points, but the professor himself will have judged the points again when you discussed them and will now be convinced that the points are fair.

Begging even more for the points will probably not get you any more points, but may annoy the professor, e.g, because you already discussed it and you are still not satisfied after he told you the final outcome. He has neither the time to discuss this again and again, nor he will consider that he was wrong the first two times (the first assignment, then your previous discussion).

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    +1. The glowing letter is far more valuable than a minor grade change. If you want to ask the prof to boost the grade, ask what additional work you could do that might convince him to do it. A dispute pushes in the other (wrong) direction. – Buffy Jan 21 at 12:37
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    @Buffy: I agree that the letter is more valuable than the grade change. However, I wouldn't suggest asking a question like "what additional work could I do". It sounds like you're asking for special treatment, which would be unfair to students who weren't offered those opportunities. If there are extra credit assignments listed in the syllabus, look to those; otherwise let it go. – Nate Eldredge Jan 21 at 16:10
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    @David 40% is not "a legitimate possibility". It's not even a coin toss. It's a chance of 2 in 5 to have a minor improvement to one of your grades. An A is already considered a 4.00 GPA, an A+ won't meaningfully improve that. – Nzall Jan 21 at 16:36
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    @Buffy: using different standards to determine grades for one student is definitely unfair to the other students—"it doesn't affect their grades in any way" is a non-argument, and would apply for instance to one student paying their professor for a higher grade. In this situation, in particular, implicit gender and ethnic biases result in differential treatment for students who make requests for special treatment. – Greg Martin Jan 21 at 17:54
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    I am not confusing the two concepts; I am asserting that this is a situation where the two concepts coincide. The grading schemes on our syllabi are contracts with students, which they accept given the understanding that the grading schemes will apply to all students the same. Upholding our end of that contract, by using the same procedure for all students' grades, is what is fair. If our contract were known ahead of time to be "everyone receives a penny regardless of time worked", then upholding that contract would be fair. – Greg Martin Jan 22 at 1:03

At U.S. top schools, recommendation letters are more important than grades.

If your professor knows you well and has a truly positive opinion of you, this will come out in the recommendation letter. The best thing you can do for yourself cultivate a real relationship with the professor (e.g. by visiting office hours, talking about ideas beyond the syllabus of your class etc). If you can talk about your goals for doing original research, so much the better.

As an aside, perfect grades aren't a very strong signal for who will be a good PhD researcher, so I really wouldn't worry about the grades very much anyway. A person who is curious and pushes themselves beyond their comfort zone -- even at the risk of getting some bad grades -- is a much better PhD admit than someone who has always gotten perfect grades.

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    Please justify your top headline with sources. While this may be true for US schools, I am quite certain that the reverse is true at many continental European schools. – HRSE Jan 21 at 17:27
  • fair point -- I should clarify -- I'm talking about top schools in the US, specifically in social sciences. And my sources are admitting PhD students to our program and discussing with other people who do the same in other programs. This is anecdotal, but I believe it is true of US social sciences programs. – sessej Jan 22 at 22:20
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    @HRSE Even in Europe a good recommendation letter carries a lot more weight than the difference between a single A and A+ grade. – Konrad Rudolph Jan 23 at 17:16

If you asked me for the points and the letter, i would give you the points and reflect my irritation with you in your letter.

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    ...and look (not with anger, but precision) if there are other places where I should have deducted some points. – jvb Jan 23 at 15:18
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    If you asked me for points (a second time) and the letter, I would not give you the points, and would not write the letter (citing the point begging). It shows a lack of maturity. – Richard Rast Jan 23 at 18:46
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    You should justify your answer with evidence or experience - or, in this case, at least explain your logic and/or suggest what OP should do (I assume you're suggesting "accept your grade as it is") - rather than simply asserting it to be generally true. You saying "I would improve your grade and give you a bad recommendation" and nothing else is no better an answer than someone else saying just the opposite. – V2Blast Jan 24 at 1:38
  • @RichardRast There is a large difference between point begging and ensuring that you are being evaluated fairly. I always encourage students to look at their exams carefully and argue in case some point deduction is unjustified. – HRSE Jan 24 at 3:12
  • @HRSE in theory sure; I can't recall a time when a second conversation was needed and the reasoning was legitimate. But perhaps such times exist. – Richard Rast Jan 24 at 10:38

Here is my two-part opinion.

First, it would be a breach of professional ethics if a professor let the quality of their letter of recommendation depend upon whether students questioned their grading judgments. (I know for a fact that I have made grading mistakes, and I have come to terms with the fact that I need to receive all requests for reconsideration, even though the majority of them are misguided, to allow the students to have my back on the not infrequent occasions they are correct.) I know this is a statement of ideals, while you are asking about what happens in practice; for that I would guess that your cordial interactions will be remembered far more than the content of your query.

Second, I still think you should let the issue go, for the following reason that is unrelated to the letter of recommendation. You had an opportunity to present an argument about how the grading scheme was applied to your work; you did so; and the grade was confirmed. Perhaps this is a learning experience that one should take the time to formulate the best argument possible the first time around, if you think you didn't do so. But the fact that you now think you could have presented a better argument is, in my opinion, not relevant: you had a chance, and you did the best you could—none of us are perfect.

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    I think that if a student has come and discussed the grading of the test once, and then wants to come and question it a second time asking for more points, in the hopes of pushing a grade from an A to an A+, this says something about the student and can motivate some negative things that could be mentioned in a letter. This is different than giving a bad letter in retaliation for a student questioning a grade. – Morgan Rodgers Jan 21 at 20:44
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    Maybe the A+ is justified, maybe not. Clearly, the discussion may be subjective to a minor extent. However, if a student cannot let go, it means that "being right" discussions will happen when it comes to corrections in papers, scientific arguments, thesis write-up etc. This signals trouble in a supervision process, and if the prof now knows this about you, the letter of recommendation might reflect that potentiality. It has nothing to do with the integrity of the professor - even the opposite, namely, he is warning his colleagues of a potential problem. – Captain Emacs Jan 22 at 18:51
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    @MorganRodgers, I agree. If the student obviously doesn't deserve any additional marks, then their presence at your office again definitely says some negative things about them, and including these in the letter is your right. However, if their arguments are good, then their presence in your office doesn't say anything negative about them; indeed, within reason, the unwillingness to compromise on matters of truth and morality can be viewed as a virtue, albeit a frustrating one. And, it's important to reward frustrating virtues, because no one else is. – goblin Jan 24 at 4:35

As a professor, I encourage you to reframe your thoughts: you didn't "miss just enough points to change [your] grade from an A+ to an A"; rather, you earned enough points to rise to an A but not quite enough to rise to an A+. It's amazing how this one detail can result in a huge shift in perspective.

--- Comment by Greg Martin

This comment by Greg Martin is so good, and so important here, that I want to highlight it here as an answer, and make some broader points about this type of situation. This is somewhat tangential to your specific question, but I will come around to the connection with your question at the end; so please bear with me.

In university-level teaching, it is very common to encounter intelligent ambitious students who have got high grades throughout their schooling and are used to performing at a very high level. Some unfortunately adopt an annoying way of framing their work, where they speak in a way that sets 100% success as the implicit default position, and any derogation from this constitutes "missing out" on points. This is a somewhat natural way that elite students come to speak of these things, since they have always obtained high grades throughout their schooling, and they are sufficiently talented to realistically shoot for 100% on a piece of assessment. In these cases it is somewhat natural for these elite students to frame things as "missing out" on this mark or that mark, since their focus is in weeding out remaining errors in otherwise high-level work. Unfortunately, over time, these students get sloppy with the way they talk about learning, and their language reflects the implicit view that perfect knowledge is the default position for them, and anything less than perfect performance constitutes some aberration, often in need of arguments over grades.

The other thing that is common to encounter in elite students is an implicit reversal of the relationship between learning and grades --- the elite student often considers the formal grade to be of paramount importance, and the learning as a method to increase grades. In reality, learning is of primary importance, and formal grades are merely an imperfect tool to assess the degree of success in that learning. In extreme cases, one occasionally encounters intelligent students who are so concerned with their grades that they allow opportunities for self-reflection and learning to bypass them entirely. Most university lecturers have had at least some experience of a situation where they attempt to impart some broad lesson to the student during a discussion over grades (e.g., pointing out some broad deficiency in their work that is a "soft-skill", which is not easy to quantify), where the student shows no interest in learning from that situation, but is only interested in arguing for a higher mark.

These kinds of attitudes constitute deficiencies in understanding the process of education and assessment; they reverses the true nature of what is going on. For ambitious and intelligent students this generally do not hamper learning too much so long as that learning is done in the confines of a formal course with a fixed scope and assessment structure, and with formal assessment of grades. However, once you come out of that environment, into situations without formal grading, these attitudes tend to stunt learning.

Most PhD programs are focussed primarily on training a student to be able to conduct independent scholarly research. They require students that are proactive in learning, and are hungry for knowledge and improvement outside of their formal courses. Some PhD programs have courses in the early years and others don't have any courses. If coursework is required then you're expected to get good grades in these, but they are merely considered as preparatory work for the real meat of the program --- the main focus of the program is on your ability to learn outside your courses, and to be able to advance your research work under supervision, without getting marks as feedback. Hence, when writing a letter of recommendation for a PhD program, a professor will assess your subject-matter knowledge, as reflected in your grades, but he will also try to assess your ability and willingness to learn independently beyond your formal coursework. If your focus is on making arguments to advance your own grades, to the detriment of self-reflection on your own performance, and opportunities for broader learning, this bodes poorly for your ability to succeed in a graduate research environment, where grades in courses are secondary, and self-driven learning is primary.

I mention these things because they are the background to assessments of a student's ability to engage in self-learning in graduate school. I'm certainly not saying that you have these deficiencies, but please bear in mind that your professor has probably encountered some students with these deficiencies before, and he is trying to figure out if you possess any of these problems yourself. You say in your question that you already made the case for a higher grade and you received an explanation for your marks. Ideally, that would assist you to reflect on how you can improve your work --- not improve your grades, but your work. Anything that reflects a willingness to self-reflect and improve your own work is going to reflect well on you in a letter of recommendation. Anything that reflects an attitude of focus only on formal grades, and a resistance to self-reflection will come out poorly.

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    To some extent, I think I disagree with ... not the quote, exactly. But some of the things that might go with it. I'll make the following point; people want the quality of their work to be reflected in the grade they get, because it is this grade and not the quality of work that will ultimately determine the opportunities that are available to them. If so, then there needs to be protocols available to assist students who believe there's a mismatch between these two things. Such students aren't always right, but if and when they are, that's an injustice unless an alteration is made. Thus... – goblin Jan 24 at 4:17
  • ... although the point of view advanced in that quotation is a valid one, if it reduces the probability that students who really have suffered such a mismatch will do something about it, then that's imo a problem. And, if this reframe reduces the probability that the administration will create protocols and policies to facilitate change of grade when the arguments in favor of such a change are strong, that's also a problem. And if this reframe influences staff to think negatively of students merely for making an argument in favor of a change of grade, or a rebuttal against one of their... – goblin Jan 24 at 4:21
  • ... arguments, that's also a problem. So, although the reframe is valid, it could potentially have negative consequences for justice through a variety of means. – goblin Jan 24 at 4:21

I personally would let it go. Most of the time people (this does mainly depend on personality) think they're right and if you attack (i.e. challenge their views) them they get extremely defensive and unresponsive. If you are going to argue in favor of those extra points make the professor himself admit they are wrong; without you outright saying it. Perhaps explain the benefits of those extra points to him? Anyways that's my 2 cents.

  • I agree with this. Furthermore, although those higher up in the academic hierarchy are more likely to be capable to scrutinizing their own beliefs and responding to evidence (this is part of academia, after all), there's also a counter-current that cuts the other way, which is that people typically don't like being challenged on issues they consider themselves expert on. In practice, then, those high up in academic hierarchies tend not to be very much more reasonable than anyone else when they're challenged in their specific field, especially if the challenge isn't characterized by the kind... – goblin Jan 24 at 4:25
  • of "respectful hesitancy" they're looking for. There's exceptions, of course. Some people - and they're more common in academia than elsewhere - think about such things ahead of time, end up deciding that the default reaction can interfere with basic principles of morality, and specifically decide to regulate themselves to avoid this. But even in academia, such people are pretty rare, and in practice the probability that rebutting a professor's argument with your own argument will lead them to decide you're attacking them is pretty high. – goblin Jan 24 at 4:28

There should be an appeal process, that bypasses / escalates beyond the professor's purview. If you successfully make the appeal, you may be able to get a recommendation letter from one of the board members rather than the professor whose judgment (or that of his TA) was found wanting.

Alternatively, you could take the course again with a different professor or opt for a different elective.

You are obviously between a rock and a hard place. Write your own assessment of the professor in ratemyprofessors.com to allow other students to decide whether they want to risk their careers by taking a class given by that professor, eat your losses, and then move on.


I agree with allo.

Some further thoughts:

It's frustrating when you haven't even gotten the chance to make your points, and a good university should develop protocols and procedures to make sure this is possible. In practice, few do; most are more interested in making the process of disputing a grade as hard as humanly possible, and you're forced to put up with the stubbornness, small-mindedness and stupidity of human nature, essentially by design. And, though most professors are far from stupid, they can be every bit as stubborn and small-minded as anyone. Let it go. As buffy said, the recommendation letter is a lot more valuable than the grade, and even if the way you were graded was unfair, it's better to be strategic and maximize your chances of getting the recommendation letter. And, please, if you're ever in a situation where you can influence the direction that university policies take, please please please influence them in the direction they need to go. Students shouldn't be punished just for making an appeal to fairness and offering some arguments in favor of their work, or for rebutting a weak rebuttal to their arguments. Nothing about this is okay.

Addendum. I think the voting patterns here bolster my point. For example, note that I fully addressed the points made in Ben I.'s first comment, yet the comment continues to be upvoted and the rebuttals ignored, essentially because I ruffled a few feathers. This is small-mindedness in a nutshell, and really emphasizes the importance of my final point, which I'll repeat again: Students shouldn't be punished just for making an appeal to fairness and offering some arguments in favor of their work, or for rebutting a weak rebuttal to their arguments. Nothing about this is okay.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – eykanal Jan 24 at 3:14

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