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I'm a French student planning to go study in the United States.

Most colleges in the United States seem to ask for two recommendation letters from our professors.

Can we just send the same two recommendation letters to every colleges? Or do we need to provide two different recommendation letters for each college? In other words: If I'm applying to 10 universities/colleges, do I need to get 20 recommendation letters or just 2?

Also: Will I be able to look at what was written in each recommendation letter? Or are they sent via internet by the professors, without the option for me to see them?

  • From a legal perspective, your right to view those letters is protected in the US by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). For more details pertaining specifically to letters of rec, check this link: career.cornell.edu/paths/health/medschool/hcec/upload/… (It's tailored for this school, but the principles apply anywhere in the US.) – tonysdg Oct 15 '15 at 18:15
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In the U.S. you do have a legal right, if not supposedly waived, do see the letters written on your behalf. However, within the U.S., there currently seems to be the general expectation in faculty's minds that students will "waive" this right, the idea being that the letter writers will be more candid without the risk of upsetting the student. In particular, the set-up is such that letter-writers will see whether or not a student has "waived" that right, and, note, possibly write a considerably different letter if there is no waiver.

At the same time, I have read that the "waiver" is not legally binding...

At the same time, I have the strong impression that people in academic depts in the U.S. (certainly in math depts, for example) would think it quite "tacky" (=gauche) to ask/demand to see the letters, whether or not one had signed the waiver. It's simply not the style.

I'm not arguing that this is a good situation, since it amounts to students not quite knowing what people really think of them... for better or for worse. Somehow there is an inflation of unusable/cheap praise, and a drought of substantive praise here, as a cultural style.

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Usually, you tell the professors who write you letters where you apply. They will write a letter and send it to all schools you apply.

You are allowed to see the content of recommendation letters via request from the application account. However I recommend against it, it's better to waive your right on viewing recommendation letter and trust the writer.

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    It's worth noting that sometimes professors will tailor their letters depending upon how much they know about a) the student b) the program they're writing the letter for and c) how willing they are to go the extra mile for said student. I'm on @user50746's side of things, so my knowledge of this is entirely second-hand, but in general I think that professors will write a letter, and then make small modifications as appropriate. – Galen Harrison Oct 15 '15 at 18:13
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    The last paragraph is a little confusingly worded. At some institutions (not all), you may by default have a legal right to view the letter (often this requires a formal written request that takes a long time to process). But you can permanently waive this right, and if you do then you will not be allowed to see the letters even if you later change your mind. And many professors may refuse to write the letter unless you do waive this right. – Nate Eldredge Oct 15 '15 at 19:16
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    Why on earth would anyone refuse to give the student a copy of the letter? – Repmat Oct 15 '15 at 20:41
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    @Repmat, in the U.S., there is the idea that if a student sees a letter and thinks they were ill-served, they could cause trouble for the faculty who wrote it, either by "grievance" proceedings within the university, or actual legal proceedings. From the other side, there is also a belief that it's not good for the best students to hear high praise of themselves, either. So faculty are considerably more candid (rather than guarded) if their comments are private. – paul garrett Oct 15 '15 at 21:44

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