I am an international student studying in North america. I am applying for a master's program. I reached out to many professors for a letter of recommendation, but none replied. So, I told one professor that I would give him a small coffee gift card just for replying, regardless of whether he said yes or no. I now realize that I should not have done this.

The professor explained that I should never make such an offer and that he could not accept it. Still, he agreed to write the letter. However, he is going to mention this incident in the letter.

Is this gonna give the negative impression to people who review application? If so, should I ask someone else to write for me instead? It is hard to get people to reply to my requests.

  • 2
    As to why the professor might write that in a letter they may find themselves caught between an ethical dilemma. They might feel they should write you a letter of recommendation based on their knowledge of you, but may also feel the "not a bribe" gift card incident is too serious to not mention, particularly if it were to become known later. Sep 29, 2022 at 8:13
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    ''So, I told one professor that I would give him a $25 coffee gift card just for replying, regardless of whether he said yes or no.'' Ummm.....why?
    – Tom
    Sep 29, 2022 at 11:21
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    Is it possible he wrote something like: "The only interactions I have had with Mia were that she took one of my courses and that she offered me a gift card in exchange for writing a letter of recommendation, which I declined"? If so, that significantly changes the situation.
    – cag51
    Sep 29, 2022 at 15:39
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    Your professor's insistence on mentioning this incident in a recommendation letter smacks of vindictiveness, pettiness and spite.
    – Deepak
    Sep 30, 2022 at 14:24
  • Did the prof agree to write the letter on the condition that they will mention the incident, or did they agree to write the letter, and then state that they will unconditionally mention the incident? The two situations are very different.
    – bob
    Sep 30, 2022 at 19:32

8 Answers 8


Do not use this reference letter.

Depending on the exact information included and the phrasing used, there are two potential interpretations the reader could be left with.

Scenario A is that the reader gets the impression that you genuinely and purposefully tried to bribe the letter writer. This would such a drastic ethical transgression that I'd expect your application to be utterly rejected at this point.

Scenario B is more favourable to you: Here the reader believes (as I do based on your post) that you made a rather innocent mistake based on a lack of understanding of the relevant social norms. But then the letter writer is themselves unaware of the impact and meaning of your words, or they are trying to sabotage you. The most gracious reaction to that would be to disregard the entire letter.

So to summarize, the best plausible outcome of such a letter is that it gets ignored, at worst it will sink your entire application.

As already brought up in the comments and by Buffy, there is no tradition of "facilitation money" in "the West", including Canada. This would count as a bribe, and offering or accepting bribes is usually illegal. And if you actually want to try and get someone to risk their job and maybe even jail time, you'll have to offer way more than $25.

  • 29
    "And if you actually want to try and get someone to risk their job and maybe even jail time, you'll have to offer way more than $25." Just in case anyone reading this takes it seriously, the message here is that you shouldn't offer bribes at all, not that you should offer larger bribes.
    – kaya3
    Sep 29, 2022 at 5:02
  • I don't think 25$ is enough to count as a bribe. Don't you have guidelines like "gifts under x$ don't have to be declared, anything over needs to be"? It is inappropriate, but even if professor accepted he most likely couldn't end up in (legal) trouble. Sep 29, 2022 at 8:29
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    @ZizyArcher A bribe is something meant to reward past actions or induce favourable future actions. OP explicitly offered the gift card as a reward for replying to their email, hence it is a bribe. The thresholds are about when a gift is assumed to be a bribe even if not explicitly stated. Student offers me home-baked cookies for a good mark - bribe. Student just gives me home-baked cookies - assumption is that this is not a bribe. Student just gives me $10000 "because they felt like it" - assumption is that it is actually meant to influence me, hence bribe.
    – Arno
    Sep 29, 2022 at 9:35
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    @ZizyArcher I'm a teacher in Germany, and the rule is clear: If the present comes from a single person, I may only accept something worth less 5€ (cookies would be fine :) ) and only if it's clear that the present is not related to any official actions such as grading. A $25 coffee gift card? That's only acceptable if the entire class decides to collect money for a farewell present.
    – Sabine
    Sep 29, 2022 at 9:43
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    Further to Sabine's comment, where I taught, faculty could accept gifts of "nominal value," but never a gift with monetary value, so no gift cards. My practice was just to tell students that professors aren't allowed to accept gifts. I did accept a small gift from a student after the student had graduated; I probably shouldn't have done that, either.
    – Bob Brown
    Sep 29, 2022 at 22:31

Your professor's actions seem very strange.

  • If he believes that you were trying to bribe him, then he should have refused to write the letter.
  • If he believes that this was a simple misunderstanding, then putting this in your letter seems like an inappropriate response. At most, the professor should disclose the incident in a footnote rather than describing the incident in the very first paragraph.

Is this gonna give the negative impression to people who review application?

It's more likely to give a negative impression of the professor. Unfortunately, since the professor is recommending you, this is not great for you either. Further, it creates a distraction: the committee will likely spend only a few minutes considering your application; you do not want them to spend their time discussing this irrelevant incident.

Still, the real question is: what are your other options?

  • If you can find another professor who can write you an equally-strong recommendation, then of course you should do that. But I assume you are asking the question because you do not have many other options.
  • In this case, I do not think using this professor's letter will be fatal for your application, and you may not have any choice (your application will be incomplete if you do not submit enough letters). It's probably a good idea to provide a brief (one-sentence) description of this incident providing your side of the story, but do not dwell on it; space spent describing this incident would be better spent describing your strong points.
  • 5
    +1 except for this line: "It's probably a good idea to provide a brief (one-sentence) description of... your side of the story" Already the full post here is viewed as weird--I don't see much benefit in highlighting this situation.
    – Kimball
    Sep 28, 2022 at 2:46
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    @Kimball - hard to say without knowing what the professor wrote, I think. If he already explained it clearly, then I might agree with you. But if the professor wrote something confusing about "decline of gift card," then a clear, one-sentence explanation of what happened here might prevent misunderstandings. For sure OP should not indulge in a lengthy introspection or post-mortem.
    – cag51
    Sep 28, 2022 at 3:37
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    "If he believes that this was a simple misunderstanding, then putting this in your letter seems like an inappropriate response." - My interpretation would be that, by listing the two ways the professor has interacted with the student (by teaching a course, and by declining a gift card) alongside each other, the professor is emphasising that the former was a very limited interaction giving them just as little knowledge of the student as the latter.
    – kaya3
    Sep 29, 2022 at 5:08
  • The question has been edited since I wrote my answer; the new version indeed makes it seem like the professor knows almost nothing about the student and therefore doesn't have much to say in a LoR. If so, this will be a very weak letter, but it's unclear to me that OP has any better options.
    – cag51
    Sep 29, 2022 at 15:41

Perhaps this is just a cultural misunderstanding. You don't write like a native Canadian, so I'll assume you are from another culture for this advice.

Different cultures have different practices and expectations around gifts. In Canada and the US, what you did seems like a bribe of some sort and your comments suggest that it was, at least, an inducement to answer you. I don't know if this would be natural in the place you were born or not.

But, one option you have, perhaps, is to go visit them in person and apologize for what you did and, assuming it is true, tell them that you just don't have enough experience with the local culture yet and ask them to forgive you for your actions. If they seem to accept the apology, you can then ask, again, for a letter.

It isn't something that would likely work with email, however.

But, yes, in Canada and the US, the interpretation would be negative at worst and puzzling at best. It just doesn't happen here.

  • 1
    Yes I’m a international student and I already apologized to him. He is ok to write a reference letter. The point is he is gonna say “ the decline of gift card”. And I am not sure wether should I suggest him as my referee or not.
    – Mia
    Sep 27, 2022 at 19:59
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    I would guess it is a bad idea, unless he is writing to a close friend and thinks it is funny. But a stranger would interpret it badly, I think. The wording would matter a lot.
    – Buffy
    Sep 27, 2022 at 20:03

Avoid using that reference unless it means you can't put in the application. It comes across as odd, and a reader will discount the letter.

If you have trouble getting professors to write you references, you could try making an appointment with the chair of your department (or a similar position) and ask them to help.

Explain the problem and the consequences (it makes it impossible for you to apply for positions). They may be able to find out why professors aren't responding to you when writing references for students is part of their job.

If these professors think they are too busy, then a department chair or dean can remind them they need to find the time. If they won't write because they feel they would have to write a mixed or negative letter, then you need to know that before you graduate.

There may also be an office of international students on your campus that could help you with the cultural niceties of references. I found references as they work in the USA very strange when I first moved here, and I imagine Canada will have its own specific culture too.


The incident of the gift card is one thing.

But if the professor is going to go further than that and actually mention this incident in your letter, do you really want that person speaking on your behalf in your application package?

This is like noticing any red flags on a job search. If a employer/advisor/boss engages in practices that you disagree with, why would you want to work with them? That professor is definitely doing something questionable and I would not want them to write a letter that is going to damage my chances of admission.

On the note of people not replying, professors are busy with tons of e-mails. So don't necessarily over-do it, but definitely follow up on e-mails when you can. Maybe go in person as well if it's possible.

  • 1
    I don't think there is anything ethically wrong about the professor informing the student that if they write a letter, they will have to include some information which is not favourable to the student. It would be wrong to write and send a letter without informing the student that they intend to write it in an honest, unflattering way.
    – kaya3
    Sep 30, 2022 at 8:28
  • You're not wrong by this, but it's like a situation where a professor doesn't know they would be able to write a strong letter. You know at this point you are better off trying another professor than this one.
    – Daveguy
    Oct 2, 2022 at 16:51

This incident sounds to me like a simple misjudgment in relation to an intention to give a small gift as a thank-you. The inference to this being a bribe to influence a decision-maker is weak, since you offered it as a gift irrespective of the outcome of the decision of the professor, and the value was extremely small in relation to the earnings of the proposed recipient. As others have pointed out, it is strange and ethically-fraught to offer a gift in circumstances like this, but it sounds like you have already learned that.

Personally, I don't think the mention of this incident is likely to be harmful to your application, so long as there is a clear explanation of the details (including the mitigating parts) and the fact that you have learned not to do this since then. It is not unheard of for new students to be unfamiliar with the rules and customs around gratuities in universities, a fortiori if they are from another culture. The sole negative impression that this incident would give to me is that you came into the university somewhat naive and socially awkward in relation to how students should interact with their professors. If you decide you want to include the LOR that includes mention of this incident, then I would recommend you include a clear description of the incident in your own materials, and stress what you have learned from it.


My first thought would have been "do not use his letter", but I also feel like you don't have a lot of options. It's not easy.

  1. I have a lot of experience with recommendation letters (requesting, writing, and reading). I have never, ever, seen (or made) any mention of attempted gifts in one of them. This would stand out like a sore thumb to a reader/recruiter. I can't predict the reaction, but it would be quite memorable.

  2. The professor was right to refuse your offer and to help you understand how the system works. However, I find it extremely unlikely that you are the first one to make this mistake. Other professors (see #1) appear to have chosen not to mention anything. This means your professor does not think like most professors (let alone like most letter readers).

  3. Thus, the issues with his letter (which you will never see) could be larger than just the mention of the "bribe" incident. I feel the most important question is: is the letter going to be strong? Will it describe your flaws in painstaking detail? Will it contain phrases like "Mia was the 15th out of 28 students in my class and her performance was acceptable"?

  4. But again, this professor is the first person that even answers your request. You might be better off with a strong letter with a weird paragraph than without the letter.

My conclusion is that you should ask for a 10-minute meeting and try to be relatively direct. Maybe you should ask something like "Are you comfortable writing a strong letter?" You have little to lose. I hope this helps.


This is a really awkward position, for the both of you. If he considers this as a bribe, he is obligated to report it to the university and not mention in a recommendation letter... I think that he is trying to teach you something about the ethical value of that as an action. Also, I don't know how things work over there with the recommendation letters from previous employers and teachers, but I was in a deep hole when I was in college and even though I would pass my exams and barely get away with absences, none would give me any kind of recommendation and I would never blame them for that. What worked for me when I started looking for employment, if they had asked me for a letter, I would tell them the truth. Expose exactly who I was and how I was back then, but also the steps and leaps I had taken to turn my life around and be the man I am today. I am sure our cases are different, but what I was to tell you is that even if you have and interview, and you don't have a letter, explain to them why, expose your true self with all the feelings you have, all the shortcomings and anxiety, but also tell them what you have learned, how you deal with life, what you can offer them. I have finished psychology and I work at a big company that has nothing to do with that and also have friends in HR in high places. The meta has shifted, they are looking for people that know they have weaknesses and are actively try to work on these, they don't trust the perfect candidate. I don't know if I passed to you what I wanted you, my feelings tend to overtake me when I write. Best of luck nonetheless.

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