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I studied physics and computer science as an undergrad, got a master's in computer science, and now am applying for a second master's in engineering physics. So, I have emailed one of my old physics professors for a recommendation letter. He agreed to write one, but has requested more information to do so seeing as though I haven't been in touch since I went to grad school. He didn't specify any particular items, but another letter writer has requested my statement of purpose draft, coursework/research highlights, resume, and unofficial transcripts, so I'm assuming he'd appreciate the same. Because he is from a different school and department and hence unfamiliar with their curriculum, I was planning to send a list of my grad school classes and grades with descriptions included rather than the unofficial transcript which only includes the course number and a brief, generic title.

I'm happy to oblige, except for one thing: I failed a class in grad school. This is explained by a medical situation at the time; I took the next semester off, it is since resolved, I did well in all my classes afterwards, etc. - it is a non-issue now.

My question is, should I include this black mark when I send him materials? It is not something that affected any of my work in undergrad and will not affect anything in the future, so I'd think it's not really relevant. I'd rather not tell yet another person about how I failed a class, especially someone who I haven't talked to in a while and have asked to write good things about me.

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    If you don't include the bad with the good, then you haven't provided a transcript – and you haven't satisfied his request. (Besides, if you "did well in all" your classes afterwards, he should notice that. Plenty of folks have a misstep or two on their transcript.) – J.R. Aug 20 '15 at 21:21
  • True, and I did send the transcript and an explanation to the professor who requested it. This one didn't specifically ask for a transcript - his email only stated that he would be glad to write, and "I look forward to more information." I asked this question because I am embarrassed by the incident and prefer not to discuss it if not necessary. But hopefully the A+'s afterwards will make up for it :) – user812786 Aug 20 '15 at 22:11
  • You are focusing on the little pimple on your nose instead of your nice hair, eyes, etc., and the pleasing effect of the whole. Just attach an unofficial transcript. If he has a concern with the little pimple, then give him a brief explanation with a neutral tone. – aparente001 Aug 20 '15 at 22:38
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    Why is "old" relevant? – Gimelist Aug 20 '15 at 23:58
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    @Michael I suspect he means "Old profressor" as in former/noncurrent professor (not as in elderly). Indicating that it has been as while since he studied under the professor. – Lyndon White Aug 21 '15 at 5:29
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I would err on the side of being honest, as you have a legitimate reason for why one specific class was an issue. Whereas that is explainable, it would be a mark against your character if he discovers that you did not give him a complete list of a classes after he requested it.

  • Thanks for your answer, this is a good point. I don't really expect him to see a complete transcript, but you are right that there is really no reason not to mention it (other than my own embarrassment). – user812786 Aug 20 '15 at 22:12
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My question is, should I include this black mark when I send him materials?

Yes, you should definitely include it or, at the very least, make it clear to him if you aren't providing a complete list of courses from grad school. The danger is if he thinks it's complete and makes statements based on that in his letter, for example that you never received a grade less than an A-. Then he looks clueless (which is bad for him) and the admissions committee assumes he doesn't know what he's talking about and discounts any other good things he says (which is bad for you).

You can just give him the same explanation you're planning to give the admissions committee, and it shouldn't be a problem.

  • It hadn't occurred to me that he might comment on my grad school performance, since he only knew me in undergrad, but that is a very good point. Thanks for your answer. – user812786 Aug 20 '15 at 22:14
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You aren't applying to the professor. You're using a letter from the professor to help where you are applying. He's writing the letter to help you. Expect him to have some consideration for what to say about the grade (or even whether to bring it up).

If the people who are going to judge your application are going to see that grade, then it's incredibly useful if someone who is on your side can say something about it. So yes - of course send it to the professor and give a brief explanation. What do you think would be worse as someone reviewing applications: seeing that the student had failed a course and reading a letter of recommendation that says: "I know this student is hard working and talented, but struggled during a serious illness that is now resolved", or seeing a letter that says "without exception this student has always performed well."

You should also think about sending a doctor's note along with your application. Have a quick note saying, "Please disregard my performance in semester X. I became ill (see attached doctor's note). I took time off to recover. The illness has been dealt with. As you can see from my later grades my performance since then has been much improved."

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If your full transcript will be available to the recipients of the letter, you should certainly send it to the author of the letter. At best, "inconsistent messages" in the letter and the transcript might cause delays and/or confusion. At worst, they would be a straightforward and objective reason not to consider your application at all, especially if there are plenty of other well-qualified applicants.

It would be sensible to add a note stating the medical circumstances to both sets of documentation, of course.

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Yes. No professor in the world expects a student to have had stellar grades in every class. If he asked for your transcripts, he wants to see it all... not just the highlights.

You already know this... or you wouldn't be struggling with it.

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