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I am currently applying for a Ph.D. in Physics in the US. One of my recommenders has already submitted a letter to the schools I'm applying to, but I was advised by another faculty member that I should have gotten a letter from a different professor I worked with since the submitted one wouldn't be as strong. The latter professor would most likely write a stronger recommendation.

All of the programs I'm applying for require three letters, and most allow for four; would simply adding the extra recommender be sufficient or should I contact the school to remove the weaker letter entirely if possible? In other words, would having it there bring down my application if there is a stronger one I could replace it with or would it reasonable to assume that reviewers would consider all four and think of the weaker one as extraneous (since I cannot define a ranked order)?

57

You can't "retract" a letter. This isn't done, and I think it would look weird and somewhat suspicious. The committee might be inclined to read that letter more closely in case it contains something damaging that you were trying to conceal. At the very least, it seems distasteful to be "gaming" your professors' supposedly well-considered evaluations in this way.

You certainly can have this other professor submit their letter in addition to the others. For those schools that specify three letters, it will be up to the committee whether they read all four, or choose three in some arbitrary way. I suspect that if three letters suggest you're a viable candidate, the committee will be willing to look at the fourth.

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    Could having four letters make the committee believe that I'm trying to make up for weaker parts of my application? – SqueamishLizard Dec 5 '19 at 3:59
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    @SqueamishLizard: That seems unlikely. Sheer number of letters doesn't particularly strengthen an application, anyway; what matters is the overall impression given by those letters collectively. – Nate Eldredge Dec 5 '19 at 4:04
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    @SqueamishLizard I think the schools put a maximum limit on the number of letters b/c otherwise some candidates would attempt to snowstorm the admissions committee. I think the danger is that if you send more than the limit, the committee will not feel obligated to read beyond the limit and they may choose the weaker letters. But you should be fine to go to the limit. – emory Dec 5 '19 at 22:10
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No don’t do that. No better way to get everyone to read that exact letter out of curiosity. Plus you have no evidence it is any better or worse than any others.

3

There is an option if you have not submitted your application yet and most of your LOR writers have not submitted their letters: delete your existing application, make a new one and ask for letters of recommendation again. This time, do not ask for the LOR from the professor in question.

0

You can always ask if you can replace a reference letter or add a fourth reference letter. As long as it does not seem from your request that you are trying to hide something or cheat the process, you should be fine. Everybody knows that applicants generally try to submit strong reference letters if they can, so there is nothing wrong if you want to replace a weaker reference letter with a stronger one.

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The writer of a letter should be able to retract if they discover something about you they don’t like.

You should be able to retract a letter if you discover that the author has credited you with accomplishments you know are not true.

But I say “should” for both because many things could interfere.

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    While this is certainly true, it seems like an answer to a different question; this one seems more focused on "strategy" than hiding/revealing malfeasance. – Matt Dec 6 '19 at 3:58

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