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Sometimes online application systems ask for uploading recommendation letters as supplementary documents (scanned copies). In this case, it is possible to get general recommendation letters (addressed as To Whom It May Concern) and submit them for different applications.

  1. Is it bad to submit a recommendation letter, which has not been addressed for a specific application? Assume that the content will be the same.

  2. If it is OK, is it bad to attach some recommendation letters for an application when it is not requested?

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    What level is this? Grad school applications? Postdoc? Tenure-track? How many things are you applying for? – Noah Snyder Sep 18 '13 at 4:54
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I'm actually surprised that whatever system you're using has you upload the letters yourself. Typically (maybe this is field specific?) an applicant should not even get to look at the letters, since any negative (or neutral) comments the writer includes might strain their relationship, and so excluding the applicant means the writer can, in theory, be more direct and honest.

That said,

1) This is bad. A generic letter is obviously better than no letter at all (if one or more is required), but not always by much. It indicates that you are interested in a position somewhere rather than interested in a position there. If your other qualifications are superb this might not matter, but you can give any application a really significant boost by showing the people who will be reading it that you are interested in them and will be a good fit. This doesn't mean totally different letters for each application, but you will have to help your letter writers to tailor small changes, for each letter, that "personalize" your applications.

2) This is probably bad too; if they didn't request letters, then they don't want them. At best they'll ignore them, at worst they'll be annoyed that you don't follow directions.

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First, as wsc says, you should not be uploading the letters yourself. Usually there's someone in your dept. who can accept letters and send them out if there's no way for the letters to be uploaded directly.

Second, senior letter writers already spend a lot of their own valuable time writing letters for dozens of people. Asking them to write separate letters for dozens and dozens of applications for each person is completely unreasonable. In Math for research jobs in the US, letters for job applicants are not school specific. (Though they do usually say "postdoc" or "tenure track position" since obviously a strong postdoc candidate would often be a weak TT candidate.)

(For teaching letters for liberal arts schools my impression is that the situation is somewhat different and some specialization may be expected. But I don't have first-hand knowledge. Of course, for those letters, it's less likely that one person is writing 50 letters a year.)

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    Not having access to letters appears to be a US issue. In other countries, it is more or less accepted that students will get the letters of recommendation directly and upload it themselves. I recently caused a bit of commotion when I asked an EU-based fellowship program if I could directly send my letter of recommendation to them instead of forwarding it to them via the student! – aeismail Sep 18 '13 at 5:13
  • Interesting. When I wrote a letter for Cambridge Part III, there was an elaborate procedure to ensure that the letters hadn't been tampered with. (The letter had to be on official letterhead, signed, and put in a sealed envelope with my signature across the seal.) But maybe England is different from the continent? – Noah Snyder Sep 18 '13 at 5:17

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