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I plan to apply to approximately 16 schools and am wondering whether that's too many for my recommendation letter providers.

It's happened before that a professor of my friend refused to provide all letters for him because they're too many. They refused to send all the LoR and cut it from 10+ to about five finally. It would be a disaster if the LoR provider changes his/her mind in the end. Also, I don't want to bother my professor that much.

I believe my professors are nicer than him, but still don't know what's a suitable amount of required schools.

I'm applying for master programs and the 16 selections are range from dream to match to safe, with about five in each category. I failed last year and thus I chose a safer (and might be a bit unnecessary) plan.

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    Do you mean denied, rather than regretted? Otherwise I am confused why this would even matter. – Zaibis Jan 8 at 10:57
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    I'd say a professor, who is too nice, too often, may regret it later. – Bernhard Döbler Jan 8 at 11:36
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    Don't professors have scripts/software nowadays to write recommendation letters? – J. Fabian Meier Jan 8 at 15:12
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    @J.FabianMeier The problem isn't writing the letters, because we typically only write one letter for each student, which we can use for every program that student is applying to. The real problem is submitting the letters to all those departments, each of which is using a different computer system with different annoying features. – JeffE Jan 8 at 18:09
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    @JeffE But isn't submitting something that could be done by secretaries or other administrative people? – J. Fabian Meier Jan 8 at 18:29
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As other people have mentioned, the problem with 16 schools is that a professor cannot, either truthfully or operationally provide customized letters to 16 different schools. By "customization" I mean more than changing the name of the school and program. Good letters of rec use professor's familiarity with their field to speak to applicants' specific strengths with regard to the program, or referencing previous students of theirs who attended the program in question.

In honesty, I wouldn't expect to ask a professor to customize a letter for more than two or three schools, plus a generic one for the others. Maybe four custom letters if you have worked very closely with them.

You could let them know what your top few choices are, then acknowledge a generic letter can be shared among the rest.

I would also reconsider whether 16 is a necessary amount. In my field, 10 programs would be a lot.

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    The discussion about the costs of applications in the US has been moved to chat. Please read this FAQ before posting another comment. – Massimo Ortolano Jan 8 at 18:55
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    Looking back at my recommendation requests, I get the feeling that the students who apply to the most places seem to be foreign nationals who might have trouble staying in the US unless they can get enrolled. Getting an appropriate education might not be the only issue driving the application count. – Scott Seidman Jan 9 at 15:54
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    I can understand this motivation, and am willing to support it through the recommendation process if I'm in a position to do so. – Scott Seidman Jan 9 at 15:55
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Tell your professor of your plan to apply to 16 schools, and let them decide if it’s too much. They are capable of making their own decisions without you doing that on their behalf. It’s nice of you to worry about the professor’s well-being, but unnecessary, and counterproductive if it ends up undermining your own success.

And as for the professor regretting having to send so many letters, well, yes, I think that’s something that many of us experienced. It’s unconscionable and stupid that the system works that way. But that’s not your fault. If it’s really a lot of schools and a big time sink for the professor, perhaps they can arrange to delegate the task of uploading the letter to a clerical staff member at their department. That’s their concern, not yours.

Edit: I see that several of the answers and comments are discussing whether the number of schools you’re applying to is appropriate, not from the point of view of your specific question about the professor’s letter workload, but in the sense of whether it’s generally in your interest to be applying to that number of programs.

It seems to me worth acknowledging that this sort of gratuitous advice has nothing to do with your actual question and was not solicited by you in any way. In particular, there is no need for you to explain the reasoning that led you to that number or what mix of schools you’ll be applying to, either to the people here or to the professor you’re asking for a letter from (although if you want to seek advice about such things, it’s certainly fine to discuss it).

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    Not only ask about 16, tell your professor your top four choices. – Bob Brown Jan 8 at 0:12
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    If I were the professor I would encourage the student to focus on the top choices and spend their time increasing the application essay quality. – Rakurai Jan 8 at 16:40
  • I think I should make it clear. I'm applying for master programs and the 16 selections are range from dream to match to safe. I've failed last year and thus I chose a safer (and might be a bit unnecessary) plan. And I meant the professor of my friend refused* to send all the RL and cut it from 10+ to appr. 5 finally. Anyway, thanks for the reply :) – outsider Jan 9 at 2:23
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    I fully agree with the last two paragraphs (post-edit) – Jan Jan 9 at 10:12
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Unlike the other answers, I do not think the professor's time spent customizing is an issue. Customizing a letter does not take that long. Professors have lots of practice. Submitting it can take longer due to low quality submission systems. But writing the first letter is most of the work.

The issue is that only one of these letters is worth submitting: the one for the place you are going to enroll in. We don't know which of the sixteen is the right one, but it should be easy to identify several that are the wrong program for you to enroll in. Ask yourself: Is it realistic for me to get in? Is it unlikely that I will get in to a better program? Is the program able to provide realistic funding? Is this a place I am willing to live for years? If the answer to any of these is no, don't apply.

There's no prize for getting into a lot of graduate programs.

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    I think I should make it clear. I'm applying for master programs and the 16 selections are range from dream to match to safe. I've failed last year and thus I chose a safer (and might be a bit unnecessary) plan. – outsider Jan 9 at 2:09
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    @outsider That's fine. Two to three schools in each category should be enough. – Anonymous Physicist Jan 9 at 2:15
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    @AnonymousPhysicist actually there is a (small) prize for getting into a lot of graduate programs. The prize is choice. If you only get into one program and they offer financial support then you either take it or leave it. If you get accepted into two programs they are in competition. – emory Jan 9 at 15:42
  • @emory That's mostly not true because it's mostly possible to determine which choice is better before you apply. Once you have three reasonable offers, there's little benefit to getting more offers. – Anonymous Physicist Jan 9 at 23:10
  • Graduate student pay is only negotiable within a narrow range. – Anonymous Physicist Jan 9 at 23:10
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You can ask him, of course. But the problem with asking for too many is that you will get a general letter sent to all, rather than a letter tailored to each given position.

I realize this is hard if all schools have similar deadlines, but if possible you should spread it out over time, with your professor's OK. You can also have a different professor write some of them.

If your professor has any sort of secretarial service then a lot of letters isn't burdensome as long as you are happy with the same general letter going to all schools.

You should also ask yourself whether sixteen schools is really too many to apply to. If you are a marginal student then it might be, but you should also ask for advice about whether some of the applications are just wasted. Your professor can probably help you choose a smaller set of schools without lessening your chances of acceptance. But, work out a plan with your advisor to make your application process effective.

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    Just speaking for myself, I would vastly prefer my students not spread the letters out over time. I save the requests to a folder as they come in and then pick an evening and spend two or three hours uploading them all; I'd rather not have more come in after I think I'm done. – David E Speyer Jan 7 at 2:07
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    By the way, I don't know if my personal opinion is worth more than anyone else's, but I don't think of 16 schools as too many -- it's just part of how the game works. And I don't have a secretary; are there actually departments that will let professors use secretarial time for this? – David E Speyer Jan 7 at 2:08
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    @DavidESpeyer Very wealthy departments do have secretaries that help with letters. Life is different if your endowment is billions of dollars. – Anonymous Physicist Jan 8 at 1:04
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I plan to apply approximately 16 schools and wondering whether they're too many for my recommendation letter providers...It's happened before that a professor of my friend regretted to provide all letters for him because they're too many.

You needn't necessarily require a letter to support each application (unless that's strictly required). You may be able to submit an application that lists referees, whom schools will contact if interested. It's likely you won't be short-listed by all schools and those that don't are less likely to request references.

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I'm applying for master programs and the 16 selections are range from dream to match to safe, with about five in each category.

Please for simplicities' sake, choose your top one out of each category, and save yourself so much time and stress.

That would be 3 recommendation letters. If you must, add 1 or 2 backups and have a max of 5 needed letters.

If you need help narrowing down the choices that is understandable, but you really should take the time to determine which schools are the best fit for you and your goals.

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Consider how long it will take for your professor to write one great recommendation letter for you. Next, consider how much time it might take your professor to produce 16 fantastic recommendation letters for you. Most people will do a fairly awful job if they feel they are being undervalued or asked to serve unreasonable requests.

That you are asking the question should be evidence enough requesting 16 letters is unreasonable. It shows you were raised right.

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  • Thanks. But the reason I asked is simply that I don't have much information about how the system works and how the professors write RL, given their familiarity with RL. The peers I know often apply 12-20 schools so tbh I doubt that 16 school is a rare decision. The only difference might be whether they assign all selected programs to 1-2 professors or spread them to more providers. Also, I don't expect my professors would and should provide a great RL for EACH of my programs. – outsider Jan 9 at 2:42

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