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Say a student who wants to further her study in a specific field, so she applies for multiple programs at several universities.
Each of these prospective universities requires her to submit at least two recommendation letters.
The question is that how many recommendation letters should she ask a Professor to write?
If she has applied for 5 programs at 5 universities, then she needs to submit 10 recommendation letters. She knows 10 professors of her former school, in this
case, should she ask each professor to write one recommendation letter for her,
or ask the two professors she knows best to write 10 recommendation letters for her?

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    This isn't a comment on the question per se, but applies to all the answers so far: by preference/as far as possible, ask your referee to write a letter to five universities, rather than asking them five times to write to one university. – Jessica B Jan 7 '15 at 17:03
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    When I was applying to grad schools, I asked four professors for rec letters and divided them by relevance between schools to cover the 2-3 letters required. I asked them to write a generic letter for the less important backup schools, which I was pretty sure I was going to get into anyway, and then to tweak it to specifically cater to the more important schools (especially when my letter writer knew people there). I am not sure whether or not this is the best practice, but it's what I did. – Alexander Gruber Jan 10 '15 at 19:40
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Your goal should be to get the absolute best letters possible.

Most likely, of the ten professors the candidate knows, there are two that will be 'better' letter-writers than the others - in the sense that they know her better, have taught her in multiple classes (more than the others) that she has done well in, the candidate may have done some research/reading course with them, etc.

In general, these two should be asked to write a letter each that they would send to the different programs. If a student were to come to me and ask me to send letters to five different programs, I would not write five entirely different letters. The letters might have some minor differences if the programs have some significant differences (applied vs theoretical program, or something like that), but they would be mostly identical.

The only situation where you might ask a third person is if they are a better choice for a particular program, e.g. they might be an alum of that program, or might know someone there personally, might have had the candidate in courses that are particularly relevant for that particular program, etc. In that case you would ask them to write a letter for that particular program in lieu of the default choices.

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Normally, you should choose the two people who know you best and can write you the strongest letters, and ask each of them to send one letter to each program to which you are applying. Each of them will write one letter and send copies of it, with minor modifications if needed, to every program, so it isn't much more work than sending one letter.

This is to your advantage (you get the strongest letters) and also minimizes the total amount of work.

If a program needs more than two letters, or you think another professor would be a more suitable writer for one particular program (for instance, if they have connections to that institution), then you can ask for letters from them as well. But there's no need to get letters from more different people purely for the variety.

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From my point of view as a recommendation writer, it's not much harder to send out 5 recommendation letters for a student then it is to send out one letter, since the letters vary only slightly and in most cases the letters can be submitted online. In my experience, when students ask me for recommendations I typically end up sending out four or five letters per student.

Thus I don't think that it is at all unreasonable to ask your recommendation writers to send out multiple letters (within reason.)

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As a professor, the student gets ONE letter. With dozens of requests each year, writing them is very time-consuming and somewhat daunting when one has a "to do" list with multiple students. To be honest, it seems that some students just ask every professor they've had to write one, which is poor planning and perhaps "letter shopping" for the best one. Students should accept a generic letter that will suffice for any program. I teach nursing so usually, it's for a student's first job as an RN. A few years later ask for a letter when applying for graduate school. I have agreed to those "only" if I know the student very well. Since I do not teach classroom courses anymore, usually I refer them to faculty who know their academic work (not just their clinical work). I hope that's helpful.

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