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Many Ph.D. programs in the U.S. require "a minimum of 3 recommendation letters", and you can submit up to 6 letters if you like. I am under the impression that most people just have 3 LoR, but I have 4 referees in total. In terms of both the prestige of the recommender and the work I have done with them, two of the letters are above average, whereas the other two have average quality among my peers (which I believe is far from "meh" since I am in a good research-oriented master's program in the U.S.).

For the top programs, I am not sure which three referees to request letters from, so I am taking the two above-average ones and alternating between the remaining two for different programs. Assuming all referees are happy to submit an additional letter for me, can I simply request all four letters in the application portal? Does it hurt? Does it help?

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    There are many people on this site with experience in grad admissions committees, which I don't have, so I'll let them answer. However, I'd suggest that the fourth is only helpful if they provide a suitably different perspective than the other three. Nov 29, 2022 at 20:02

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A good graduate admissions committee at a decent school is interested in whether a candidate has a good chance of graduating successfully and at a superb school whether a graduate is going to have a great impact and make them proud. Everything that is asked from an applicant is about answering this question. The number of letters is of secondary importance as long as it meets the threshold. The contents are of primary importance. There is some weight given to the standing of the letter writers in the academic community, but you might be giving it more importance than it deserves. If I am on a committee and I know the letter writer, I would give that letter more weight because I assume that the opinion is more honest. Any admissions committee has a lot of collective experience in academia and know that even the very best students might work with a barely established assistant professor.

If the fourth letter would give additional information, go for it. If not, not asking for a letter of recommendation is an act of kindness, since these things do not write themselves. (Maybe I should try the new AI-bot that my dean is so worried about.) However, since you already asked them to send letters (only not so many) this is no longer a consideration.

Completely besides the point in your case, but I cannot resist the story of a student who insisted ferociously and repeatedly on a famous person writing a recommendation letter. So the famous person finally gave in and wrote: "As far as I know, Mr. X has not been convicted of a felony in California."

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    This person has already requested these letters and the writers have written them. The question is if they should be submitting the letters they have to all schools or dropping letter 4 from schools where only 3 is required.
    – Dawn
    Jan 19, 2023 at 5:27

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