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If I apply to a job, and it asks for 4 recommendation letters, is it good if I submit 5 or more letters? Why and why not?

  • I'd say submit your best 4 recommendation letters. Of course, make sure they are saying good things about you. – Faheem Mitha Sep 7 '13 at 8:56
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    @FaheemMitha Generally, you shouldn't have access to any of your recommendation letters -- they should be confidential between your letter writers and the job. But, this is not always the case, and if you do have the letters, I don't think anyone would disagree to send the best ones. As kmm said in his/her response, don't send more than the number requested. – Chris Gregg Sep 7 '13 at 10:29
  • @ChrisGregg I didn't say you should actually read the letters. I meant (maybe it was unclear) that you should be confident that the recommenders are saying good things about you. Is that clearer? – Faheem Mitha Sep 7 '13 at 13:09
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In the US in math my understanding is:

  • For the NSF fellowship follows the rules to a T.
  • For other postdocs there's probably no harm in submitting an extra letter, but there's also rarely a compelling reason to do so.
  • For tenure track positions it is common, and not frowned upon, to submit 4 or 5 research letters instead of the requested 3 research letters. If you have a compelling reason to submit more (for example, you work between two adjacent fields) then go ahead, but if you don't have a compelling reason you're also not going to be penalized for sticking with 3 research letters. It's better to have all the letters be great than to have more letters.

There's a lot of discussion about this in the comments on this thread.

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    For the NSF fellowship follows the rules to a T. — In fact, it simply isn't possible to submit extra letters for NSF fellowships. (And applications with too few letters are automatically rejected without review.) – JeffE Sep 8 '13 at 2:03
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    It's worth noting that math may be different because applications (almost all) go through the mathjobs website. This means there's no physical files so there's no danger of someone tossing the file for non-compliance or only putting some of the letters in the file. Furthermore, since you can search applications by letter writer, having more letter writers can mean more people see your application. In other fields the workflow may be very different. – Noah Snyder Sep 8 '13 at 2:51
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The search committee, or whoever it is who is reviewing applications, asks for 4 letters because that's the number of letters they want. For a postdoc, four is logical because that is typically the size of a doctoral committee.

Unless you have a very good reason (which, off the top of my head, I can't think of), don't send more letters than they ask for. (1) They don't want to read them. (2) They will think you don't know how to follow directions and will toss your application (which is what I would do, if it wasn't clear why I was getting >4 letters). In my field of biology, there might be over 100 applicants for a position (particularly a faculty position; I've heard of 200-300 in some cases). I've been on numerous search committees, and I really can't fathom some of the materials that get sent in with applications.

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    Tossing an application seems like an excessive reaction to receiving more letters than asked for. – Faheem Mitha Sep 7 '13 at 8:51
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    I can think of a good reason: you're asked for 3 letters, and 4 nobel prizes insist to write letters for you. – Sylvain Peyronnet Sep 7 '13 at 11:30
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    I stand by saying that I would consider ignoring an application with more than the requested number of letters unless there is a clear reason. Just because you can get 5 letters from good researchers, doesn't mean you should send them. What if you can get 20? Part learning to be an academic is learning to make difficult decisions. Picking your best 4 is just one of those decisions. NIH/NSF will refuse to review your grant application if you don't follow instructions. – kmm Sep 7 '13 at 13:17
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    I think this answer should have more context. What field are you in? What country? Have you been on committees where throwing out extra letters has actually happened? In my experience, this answer is totally wrong, but I'm not sure whether that's because we're in different fields/locations or if you're misinformed. – Noah Snyder Sep 7 '13 at 18:56
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    @NoahSnyder: At the risk of beating a dead horse, the issue being discussed was throwing out the application, not extra letters. – Faheem Mitha Sep 8 '13 at 8:34

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