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I've asked three professors from the school I did my undergraduate studies at to write letters of recommendation for me. However, one of the schools I'm applying to is that same school.
In other words, lets say I went to Harvard as an undergraduate, asked three Harvard professors for letters, and then applied to Harvard's graduate program.

It seems kind of weird to me that my letter writers will review the letters they wrote for me as part of the committee review of my application. And I know at least two of them are for sure on the committee, the third I'm not sure about.

Undoubtedly, this is something that happens all the time, but I was curious how this situation is handled by the committee.

Of course, there are more committee members than the three who wrote recommendation letters for me who don't know me as a student as well, so it gives them a chance to learn about me.

I'm just wondering how this influences their decision, or, rather, how they can prevent it from influencing them too much. I know being accepted won't be a guaranteed thing, but how can you not accept someone that you yourself have recommended?

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    If there is a conflict of interest, those professors who wrote your letters may abstain from judging you or influencing the other members on the committee. – Compass Oct 22 '14 at 20:16
  • Coincedentally, my three letter writers make up the entirety of the department's faculty of my chosen subfield. So if accepted, one of them would have to be my adviser. I'm guessing one of them would have to make a determination at some point. – jonescb Oct 22 '14 at 20:36
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    Technically, if everyone has the conflict of interest, no one has a conflict of interest. :P No idea what would happen in that case. It's an edge case that the entire department will probably have to look at as a unique case. – Compass Oct 22 '14 at 20:40
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  • Because of the closely related question, I edited this one to focus on the new aspect (the professor being on the admissions committee) – ff524 Oct 22 '14 at 22:07
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I've seen this situation. In our department all faculty vote on admission decisions (we don't have a separate committee that is delegated to make these decisions.) The faculty who have written recommendations have typically argued in favor of admitting the students they've written recommendation letters for, but it would also not be surprising if a faculty member who recommended a student felt that other candidates were better qualified when it came time to make final decisions.

It's one thing to say "I think student A is well qualified for our graduate program and a TA." This is not inconsistent with "After reviewing all of the candidates, I feel that students B and C (with BS degrees from elsewhere) are the most deserving of the two available TA slots." or even "After discussion with other faculty members, and reading all of the recommendation letters, I've agreed that student A should not be admitted to the program."

It's important to understand that these are group decisions, and that faculty committees often operate by discussion and consensus rather than by simple vote counting- a lot can happen during such a discussion.

As an applicant, there really isn't anything that you can do about this- the faculty in the department will deal with it as they choose.

  • I like this answer. Especially that letters should be viewed as "this applicant could do well in graduate school, but other candidates might be better", rather than "this student would be the best candidate". – jonescb Oct 23 '14 at 16:16
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I don't see that there necessarily is a conflict of interest here. As a letter writer, the faculty member's job is to describe you and your qualifications. As a committee member, they are trying to evaluate your qualifications. Why are these two in conflict? I've been on a few such committees, and if there is a committee member who knows a particular applicant through a course or some other means, we have always listened to what that member has to say in order to augment our understanding of who the candidate is. (I gather that in some situations there are stricter rules about what criteria may be used to evaluate candidates.)

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