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I am applying to a PhD program in humanities/social sciences. I asked a professor I know (we are outside the US) to write a strong letter of recommendation for me and he said he would be glad. However, the possible content of the letter (we have only talked about it together) gave rise to two questions for me:

Firstly, he wants to include a line to the effect that he plans to work with me in different ways in future research. At first glance, it feels like a very positive note but I am not sure if the admissions committee may see something implied here that may become problematic (e.g., the student may be too distracted or he may be too busy to focus on his PhD). What do you think?

Secondly, when I asked for some other issues he seemed a bit reluctant. For example, I asked him to write more than one page if possible but he insists on one page being enough. Or, when I asked him to illustrate his praise with specific examples so as to make it credible, he agreed but kept saying that no more than two or three examples are needed and a minimal approach will be more successful. Again, this could be true but I just don't want to rely on my own judgement in this regard. So, I appreciate your take on this issue.

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    Why do you think the hiring committee would prefer spending more time reading a long LOR in the hope that somewhere in all the verbiage it actually says something they want to know? If your LOR is a lot longer than any of the others, guess which one they will read last - and by that time they might already have a shortlist of candidates to interview, so yours had better be not "strong" but "stellar" to knock somebody else off that list. – alephzero Apr 4 at 16:41
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    "For example, I asked him to write more than one page if possible but he insists on one page being enough." pbs.twimg.com/media/DflDauAU0AE04-b.jpg – user541686 Apr 4 at 20:34
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    @DIanon I don't think you understand how letters of recommendation work. Normally you ask the professor for one, he writes it and sends it without even showing it to you. It's supposed to be a honest assessment of you by the professor, not an advertisement (even if it often works as one). Why should you be entitled to decide what's in it? Just trust the professor to do a good job (otherwise they would likely have refused to write it). – Denis Nardin Apr 5 at 20:31
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    @Denis Nardin Good points. However, I disagree with the word "entitlement". I will edit my question. Maybe that's why this crops up. If a student politely brings up an issue/section he has read somewhere as a possible thing to be included, the professor should not go crazy, I think, unless s/he is absolutely sure s/he is the best letter writer in the world. And, as I said below, I am not even his student but his co-researcher and colleague. – DIanon Apr 6 at 7:47
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    @DIanon Nothing of what I wrote is in any way different from recommendation letters for phD programs or for recommendation letters for tenure track positions. I think the answers you're getting show that this behaviour is not perceived as "bringing up some points politely", more like "trying to influence the letter writing process", which is a big no no, at least in my experience. – Denis Nardin Apr 6 at 7:57
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I think you should defer to the advisor on both counts. I don't see any negative implication in the first point. It is actually pretty high praise.

And on the second, I'll have to guess that his judgment is based on more experience than you have.

Moreover, if he doesn't feel constrained by your "instructions", then he will probably write in a more natural way and that, alone, could make a difference when the letter is read.

I think that trying to micromanage this would hurt, not help.

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    Your best bet is to be happy with the letter he writes. Pushing him to do more can only hurt your letter, honestly. – TSF Apr 5 at 14:10
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Having read your question and the comments you have left, what strikes me is what I perceive as an incredible air of entitlement. You are asking this individual for a favor, and you are honestly thinking about badgering them to make a recommendation letter more than one page long (who wants to read that, anyway?) and include loads of specific examples? This is a presumably busy person who is willing to take time out of their busy schedule to altruistically help you out, and here you are complaining that they aren't doing enough.

I can understand that this is your future, so you are very invested in it, but that doesn't excuse taking the kindness of others for granted. It's bad enough that you are given access to the letter, now you want to edit it? Usually, or at least very often, such letters are sent directly to the target institution and the student has no idea what is in them.

Now, setting aside the presumptuous nature of asking for more than one page and many specific examples, I also feel it will be counterproductive. Nobody wants to read a multi-page essay on how wonderful a candidate is. First because that will be very boring and second because it will come across as fake. It will feel as though someone asked a personal friend to write the letter and then was breathing down their neck pushing them to add more and more. So even if you do convince this poor professor to write something long enough to please you, that is very unlikely to come across in a positive light for the admission committee.

If I were you, I would go back to this professor, thank them very, very much, apologize for being pushy and hope that you haven't damaged your relationship with them beyond repair. If it were me, I would be seriously reconsidering whether I would ever want to work with a student who turned out to be so ungrateful.

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  • Thank you for your insights. But, I should mention that the things I have written here all happened in my head. I had to ask someone whether I am right or not. It was a friendly chat and no one was pushy. Also, I am not his student. We have been working together as colleagues and I have been appreciative and will be appreciative. Overall, I believe it is a good thing to get the opinion of the person your are writing the letter for, especially if you believe they have something to add and to not be so certain that you think even a polite suggestion is a transgression worthy of punishment. – DIanon Apr 6 at 8:03
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    @DIanon I find the idea of the person who asked for a recommendation letter pushing the author to make it "better" fundamentally rude. It has nothing to do with whether you are a professional or not; if anything, that would make it worse since you would be expected to know how these things work as a professional. If I got a recommendation letter that i) was shown to me for some reason and ii) I did not consider good enough, I would simply not send it, I wouldn't presume to ask for better praise. I just feel you may be seriously misreading the situation and how your request may come across. – terdon Apr 6 at 8:18
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    @terdon The point is that I did not know whether the letter is good or not. So, I had to ask others' opinions. However, when one agrees to write a strong letter and then the content he proposes does not conform to the published guidelines, you should either tell him, as you propose, to not bother with the letter anymore (which is itself very rude and not possible) or at least be safe in asking whether it is possible to or even preferable to add something. They can always refuse. – DIanon Apr 6 at 8:53
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    @DIanon as you wish. But note that there is no such thing as "published guidelines" for this sort of thing. – terdon Apr 6 at 8:54
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    @AnonymousPhysicist I did not call anybody anything. I described how certain actions can be perceived, how the situation described in the OP appears to me in the hopes that this outside perspective may be helpful. I understand that you disagree, as you have every right to do, but I didn't characterize any person here. The simple truth is that the behavior described in the OP is shocking to me. – terdon Apr 6 at 9:57
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Abort!

If a professor takes the time to write a letter of recommendation for you, and you come back to them saying that it is not good enough, this is highly offensive (and I do not believe I am easily offended).

There are three possible reasons why you may think the letter is too short or not detailed enough:

  1. The professor doesn't really think that highly of you. In this case, it is common to write a concise letter which says more by not saying too much. By your description, this does not appear to be the case here.
  2. The professor has taken the time to write a good letter, but not done a very good job.
  3. You have unrealistic expectations on how fulsome a letter of recommendation should be. In my judgment, this is the case in this situation.

If #1 is true, nothing you can do or say will improve your letter. If #2 is true, you are calling the professor incompetent. If #3 is the case, you should of course not say anything.

In short, by continuing down this path you are far more likely to lose the support of your professor (and thus the letter, and much more, entirely), than you are to get the letter changed.

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    This is not an appropriate answer because it assumes the asker did something (criticized the letter) that was not mentioned in the question. – Anonymous Physicist Apr 6 at 8:09

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