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I am in a difficult situation in regards to letters of recommendation and I would like to ask for a bit of advice from all of you.

This past June, I applied to several different medical schools across the country and each one required me to submit at least 3 letters of recommendations (1 from a non-science professor and 2 from science professors). All of the faculty members that I asked were happy to write me letters of recommendation. However, one of the faculty members delayed writing the letter of recommendation for a very long time (almost 5 months) despite several reminders. One of the medical schools had a strict deadline by which they wanted their application to be completed and because of the delay from this one letter writer, I was automatically rejected from the school. At this point, I decided to return to my university (I already graduated) and speak with my letter writer in person.

From the discussion with my letter writer, I found out some very disturbing things about his intentions. He was very displeased with my in-person visit to his office (even though I did email him several times beforehand without him bothering to respond). It was at this point that he began accusing me of things that were 100% false and was threatening to include this false information in his letter of recommendation. He eventually submitted his letter of recommendation, and, at this point, I could not stop him from doing so.

Now I know that many of you will say that I should have been able to see this coming and avoid asking this faculty member for a letter of recommendation. But, with all honesty, I was completely under the impression that this professor will write me a strong letter of evaluation. I viewed this person as someone that was a true mentor to me throughout college, and this situation is very disheartening. In my honest evaluation of the situation, I believe that writing a negative letter of recommendation that includes false information about a student out of spite is completely unethical. I also believe that I should have the opportunity to defend myself.

There is no way that I can see what he wrote in his letter of recommendation. If anybody here has any sort advice in regards to this situation, please I would greatly appreciate it. I would hate to see a letter of recommendation that contains false information ruin my chances of pursuing my academic goals. Is it possible to take legal action in this matter?

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    Often with people like that, their bark is worse than their bite. If not, the writer will probably destroy his credibility by writing link a crank. // I wonder if you could have an additional letter of recommendation sent -- and then you could hope they'll eliminate the bad one (or write and ask that it be eliminated. – aparente001 Nov 10 '15 at 6:19
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    I viewed this person as someone that was a true mentor to me throughout college — Ouch. I'm so sorry. – JeffE Nov 10 '15 at 9:04
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    Don't forget that writing letters of recommendation for students lies squarely in the job description of a professor. You'd be within your rights to protest this prof's delay to the dean, as well as his poor professionalism. If he didn't want to write the letter he should have said, "you should find someone else." At any rate, don't sweat it. If the letter was that late the med school admissions krewe will, possibly, not worry about it. – O. Jones Nov 10 '15 at 14:36
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    Also, I was able to find out why he had such a negative perception of my character, but I can assure you that his assertions are 100% false and I can prove it. This is partly why I am so frustrated with this situation. – Anonymous Nov 10 '15 at 18:13
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    Given what you say I wonder if the professor has developed some sort of mental problem. – Loren Pechtel Nov 11 '15 at 6:01
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This is a most unusual situation. It's extremely rare for there to be such a large discrepancy between what a student thinks a professor thinks about them and what the professor actually thinks about them. Considering also that in this case the professor's opinion is wrong (as I will assume for the purposes of the answer, though I know nothing of the details of course), this scenario falls right through the cracks of the whole system of letters of recommendation, which was simply not designed with such situations in mind.

With that said, I think that somewhat ironically, the very strangeness of the situation offers a glimmer of hope, since it means that you can consider unusual steps that would not be acceptable in a more normal situation. Specifically, two such steps that I can think of are:

  1. You could write a letter to the schools to which you applied (specifically, email it to the admissions committee, and make sure to cc a staff member and ask for an acknowledgement) in which you explain the situation. If your letter is well-written and the explanation that you offer is credible, this may counter the effect of the hypothetical damaging letter from the professor. You may want to line up another letter writer in advance of sending your letter to substitute for the bad one.

  2. You could complain about the professor's behavior to the department chair or another professor you trust at your university, explain the details of the story, and ask them to write to the schools you applied to. This would not be a normal letter of recommendation. It should be an email sent directly to the admissions committee (rather than uploaded via some kind of automated system for LORs), again explaining the situation. Having the explanation come from the chair or another faculty member, if they agree to do it, will be more credible and increase the chances of success. In fact, the chair may very well know of similar stories of odd behavior involving your professor that you were not aware of, which he could mention or hint at in his/her letter, further strengthening the credibility of your claims.

Note that in both of these suggestions you will have to disclose all the information about what took place between you and your professor to make the explanation credible and have a realistic hope that the professor's false accusations will be ignored. If some of what took place is embarrassing or damaging to you due to real rather than imagined reasons, I'm afraid that's just a risk you'll have to take. Good luck!

  • Thank you for the response. You provided with me with very useful information and I highly appreciate it. I do have a plethora of faculty members that I personally trust and that I can approach if ever I am in need of help. One of these faculty members is also very close with the Dean of the college. I will be sure to be in contact with this person. – Anonymous Nov 10 '15 at 18:25
  • You're most welcome, glad I could help and I hope things work out for you. – Dan Romik Nov 10 '15 at 20:28
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The professor had probably (and hopefully) just threatened to include these false accusations, but in reality has not. Apart from the fact that most people would not ruin someone's career prospects just out of spite, he would probably be aware that the other letters of recommendation from the other professors would not corroborate with this view. You clearly do not have any way of finding out what he has actually done. Additionally, if he has not actually written those lies, it might appear extremely odd if you write to the schools where you applied, explaining the situation. I don't think there's much you can do now. If you are rejected, you should apply to some other institution with a letter of recommendation from someone else.

  • Thank you for the response. You bring up a good point. I can't see the contents of the letter and, thus, there's no way I can confirm my fears. If I send a letter to schools explaining this situation, and it turns out that no negative comments were made in the first place, it could work against me. Honestly, the damage (if any) has already been done and all I can do is learn from this situation. I was sure to share my story with other students at my university as a warning. Once the application cycle is done, no more further damage can be done, I will report this to University officials. – Anonymous Nov 10 '15 at 18:39
  • Why can't he find out? If he sues, it'll come out in discovery (I assume. I'm not a lawyer); purely inside-academia notions of confidentiality with no legal standing in the real world shouldn't affect that. – Random832 Nov 10 '15 at 21:37
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I don't see how you could take legal action, the content of the letter is confidential. In my institution at least, there would be no way for you to ever see it. So, effectively, you would be taking "blind" legal action, regardless whether the letter was positive or negative. This might be construed as if you intended to have a back-up in case of rejection. That is why the institution probably won't take into account any objections from your side (including a legal action). The only thing that you might hear from them, if you brought it up, is that you should've chosen your letter writers more carefully.

That being said, I really don't think anyone would on purpose sabotage someone else's career just on a whim and on top of that being a nice person (as you describe the professor in question). So, if the letter was sent, I'd assume that it contains no lies in it. As being noted in the comments, that might very well also damage the professor's reputation.

In the end of the day, there isn't much you can do at this point. If you get rejected and still think that the professor had sabotaged you, re-apply (possibly somewhere else) and don't ask for any more letters from them.

  • Thank you for the response. You are absolutely correct, there isn't much that I can do at this point. The only reason I was exploring possible legal action is because letters of recommendation are part of one's academic record (much like transcripts). Thus, I believe that anyone that falsifies information on a letter of recommendation should be held accountable by the law. Please believe me, I DO NOT wish to take legal action against anyone, I was just looking for a way to defend myself. – Anonymous Nov 10 '15 at 18:57
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This sounds like a situation where mediation could be extremely effective. If your town or university has a mediation office, you could formally request mediation. If not, you could still approach your dean and broach the idea.

As part of the mediation, after clearing up the misunderstanding, you could ask the professor to submit a corrected letter, with a brief explanation that there had been a misunderstanding that has since been cleared up.

Mediation can be very effective. However, there's no guarantee of success, and no guarantee the professor would accept your invitation to have a mediation. It's generally an entirely voluntary thing.

It shouldn't be you who invites him.

Some mediators are better than others. Choose carefully.


If the professor doesn't accept your invitation to mediation, I think it would still be worthwhile to go to your department, describe your predicament, and ask for assistance.

Please keep in mind that departments like to see their students get placed well after graduation.

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