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I made a post yesterday regarding when I should send a professor a reminder regarding a LoR request. Well, he actually got back to me today and told me that (translated and paraphrased from Korean):

"(small talk) I think it would be best for you to ask someone who may know you better. I'm afraid I may not know you well enough to write a detailed and strong recommendation letter. However, if you can't find anyone else I'd be glad to write one.

"Since I don't know you that well, it would help if you sent me your CV, SOP, and a one-page document laying out what you want me to specify or emphasize.

"Again, I strongly advise you to request a letter from a professor who knows you well, as that would lead to a stronger letter."

So yeah, it's not exactly an ideal response, but was expected. The problem I had is that I'm a MSCS student but am not originally from CS. Being busy with my own advisor and lab/projects has somewhat hindered me from becoming "close" with other professors. This particular professor I asked is one of the three who I've had interactions with a little more than the classroom level (I very briefly worked on a project with his lab mates, but it didn't turn into anything). The other two have stated they would write me letters already.

There is a postdoc in our lab who I've worked with, but I'd rather not ask a postdoc.

How negatively is this going to affect me? I don't think I really have a choice, and I don't believe this professor is someone who would write anything negatively about me, but I guess I would like some perspective from people who have been on both sides. Thanks.

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    Good letter from postdoc is better than lukewarm from prof. Nov 5 '20 at 12:55
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If someone suggests you find another person to write for you it is advice you should take unless you have no other options.

The best letters come from people who know you well enough to speak both positively and enthusiastically about you and your prospects. This professor has some reservations.

But in the case that you really have no other options, then try to follow up with them. A mediocre letter might even be worse than no letter at all, but it is hard to say.

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  • Thanks for the perspective. If two of my letters are strong, but this third one is lukewarm, would that be crippling?
    – Sean
    Nov 5 '20 at 2:27
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    @Seankala Who knows? The prof is nice; the letter will not be great, but it will most likely not be negative. If you just need to pad the number of your references and the other letters are good, it's probably not a killer. Make sure that the others are going to really be strong letters, though. Nov 5 '20 at 2:34
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This is exactly what I would say to students wanting a LoR (only I did not write it in Korean first, but your translation is eerily close!). Even with the ones I knew well I would always ask which aspects they wanted me to emphasise. Because then I would only have to translate their informal response (to me as their friend) into officialese and hey presto.

So: this person means well. The letter will probably do its job which in the main is to reassure the recipient that you are not one a mad troublemaker. However, if there is anything else who is able to provide something stronger, he does not want to get in the way of that.

That is all. Proceed as planned and do not worry too much.

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