Some universities say that "The minimum number of letters of recommendation are 2 but we highly encourage 3". If I know that I can get 2 good letters of recommendation but they "highly encourage 3", should I send in a third?

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    "Bad" or just not stellar? A letter that says you are a terrible person, have no work ethic, and are as dumb as a post, i.e. one that actively disparages you, could certainly kill your application. A mediocre letter is a somewhat different story.
    – Bill Barth
    Aug 4, 2015 at 21:27
  • I was thinking more of "not stellar". Just a so-so letter.
    – Steven
    Aug 4, 2015 at 23:24
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    Two and a half is more than two. :)
    – BobRodes
    Aug 5, 2015 at 1:52
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    @BobRodes That's almost certainly not the right way of looking at this.
    – xLeitix
    Aug 5, 2015 at 8:28
  • A mediocre third letter is generally worse than no third letter, (when a third letter is not required). Aug 6, 2015 at 1:53

5 Answers 5


Is it better to have 2 good letters or recommendation or 2 good and 1 bad letter?

Definitely, it's better to have two good letters. A bad letter is a very, very bad thing.

They're not counting -- they're reading for understanding.

  • "They" will also wonder why there weren't 3 letters, since other applicants have 3... "Cherry-picking" faculty contacts suggests itself, etc. Aug 5, 2015 at 0:59
  • @paulgarrett "The minimum number of letters of recommendation are 2." Aug 5, 2015 at 3:54
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    @paulgarrett Isn't selecting your letter writers by definition "cherry-picking"?
    – xLeitix
    Aug 5, 2015 at 8:29
  • @xLeitix, sure, selecting 3 is ... selecting... but only being able to come up with 2, instead of 3, is an indicator that one's fan base is 33% smaller, etc. Aug 5, 2015 at 12:16
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    @paulgarrett - How about putting your point of view in an Answer? (I am not really sure exactly what your point of view is....) Aug 6, 2015 at 1:54

If you can't feel assured that that third letter writer will write a positive letter, forget it. Don't risk having a negative or even so-so letter in your file.


They may count, or not, depending. My department would count because every application had to qualify for submission for graduate fellowships (policy decision), where 3 means 3. (There was also a quota of "exceptions", they could spend an exception if the candidate was worth it). Not all departments will care. Not all faculty and disciplines have fallen victim to praise-inflation, so a simple letter stating that you did a competent job in your work could be good enough, especially if the writer is known for being conservative in praise.


There are three different dimensions of the value of a recommendation letter that are relevant here:

  1. The quality ascribed by the writer to the recommendee.

  2. The certainty or itensity of that statement.

  3. The reputation of the letter writer himself/herself.

A letter that scores high in the first category, but is less persuasive on the other ones, should not be detrimental. A typical example would be "CANDIDATE attend my course on X, participated well and scored top grades in the exam." This won't get you far, but also shouldn't hold you back.

A letter that is not good because of the first criterion is problematic. A letter which scores very low on the first and very high on the third will probably kill of an application regardless of most other circumenstances.


If only to clarify my comments to other answers: if the "instructions" say "minimum 2 letters, 3 strongly suggested", or similar, it means that the admissions committee reserves the right to consider situations with only 2 letters... but certainly not that it hardly matters. It matters. A solid 3rd letter is fine, and infinitely better than no third letter, for at least two reasons. One is the mere "strongly encouraged" message, which, if effectively disregarded, amounts to a "failed diagnostic". The other is the subtler issue about appraisal of a student's potential: as it happens, it seems possible to get one super-enthusiastic letter, and one more "pretty good", ... but it's hardly to bluff to a third that is "ok". Further, and perhaps surprisingly to students, the "second excellent letter" is very often not-so-sterling-after-all, and this unexpected loss can be compensated by hearing from a third, "disinterested but informed" party, that the student has good chops. So... everyone, including the student, wants that third letter.

  • Thanks for clarifying your position. "A solid 3rd letter is fine, and infinitely better than no third letter" is a good point in response to a different question! Aug 6, 2015 at 13:04

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