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I asked a professor for a recommendation letter for my Ph.D. application, and she said something like

Sure, I am willing to write you a letter. Can you send me your research statement and school list by XXX date? Also please request all letters in a batch so that it is less likely for me to miss any request.

I understand that she needs my research statement to see what I want to work on, but why ask for a school list? I mean, she will know what schools I am applying to when she received the requests. She also doesn't need to keep track of the submission status for each school since everything will arrive in a batch.

I didn't ask her directly since the last thing I want is to annoy my referee with an unnecessary/stupid question, but I'm still curious to know the possible reasons. Is she going to review the list and suggest I refrain from applying to programs she believes I am unlikely to get into so that she won't waste time submitting a letter? Will she customize the letters for each school?

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  • "I asked a professor for a recommendation letter" I thought you just requested. Of course she wants the school list.
    – Nobody
    Nov 23, 2022 at 8:58
  • @Nobody I don't get it. Normally people only write one letter and submit the same letter to all schools, so why does it matter which schools I'm applying to?
    – nalzok
    Nov 23, 2022 at 9:02
  • When she sends the letters (assuming the same contents), where to send?
    – Nobody
    Nov 23, 2022 at 9:06
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    I think she is being careful doing it in case she misses any link from the schools you are applying.
    – Nobody
    Nov 23, 2022 at 9:13
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    Also yes, she is probably going to customise each letter, even if it's as simple as changing the name of the course she is recommending you for. It's much simpler to have the list and customise all the letters in one go, rather than doing it in dribs and drabs as each request comes in. Besides, if she knows someone at one of the departments you are applying to, she may tailor the letter even more. Nov 23, 2022 at 9:50

2 Answers 2

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You are asking the professor to recommend you for admission to schools. There are two or three good reasons why she might want a list of the schools to which you are applying:

  • A directed, pointed recommendation is much stronger than a bland one. If you give her the list of schools, she might know the preferences of some of those schools, or even better, she might even know some people in those schools. So, she would be able to write you more meaningful recommendation letters that would be more likely to stand out.

  • Related to the last point, it is possible (though hopefully unlikely) that there are some schools with people with whom she has a bad relationship. If so, then she would decline to write recommendations for those schools since she knows that a recommendation with her name on it might do you more harm than good.

  • When she receives requests for recommendations for you (directly from the schools), she can keep track that she is not forgetting to write recommendations for some of your schools requested. Remember that she most likely is writing recommendations for other students as well, so this professor might happen to be more responsible than most and she wants to make sure that she actually does what she commits to doing.

I will say that it seems that you might feel uncomfortable revealing to your referees to which schools you are applying. You should consider the fact that they have a right to know to whom they are recommending you. After all, they are putting their professional reputation at stake by recommending you.

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    They may also have recommendations for schools that you have omitted or not thought of. For example, they may recommend you apply to their previous institution or have a contact who works in a similar area. Nov 23, 2022 at 19:20
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Only the professor can really answer this, but the most likely reason is so that she has a record from you of which letters she should expect to send. Submit-your-letter-here links can go astray (mis-copied email address, filtered as junk mail, etc) or just get missed. The only way she can be sure she's not missed anything is to have a definitive list from you.

There may also be a legal aspect: she wants a record that you have authorised her to send information to specific schools.

Finally, there could be an element of social engineering: encouraging students to commit to a list of schools at the outset may (be thought to) discourage last-minute 'extra' applications and panicked requests for more letters.

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