A practical question: I have now read a few times that to get a PhD position in the US you need 3 reference letters. I assume most people apply for more than one position, so you need those 3 letters for every position. Also, there are a lot of applicants.

So how does one get a professor to write more than one letter? If I apply for say, 5 positions, I would need 15 different letters, 5 per person if I am always referring to the same persons, even if not probably more than one letter per person---and I am probably not that person's only student who wants letters.

I cannot possibly imagine professors in Europe going along with this (which is why it is becoming common here to just give the address of the referee, not send in a complete letter), so how is it in the US?

Do US students only apply for one or two positions and simply abandon the thought of grad school if they do not get it, or do they really get their professors to write that many letters?

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    I recently applied to several positions. AFAIK, my five 'recommenders' just sent the same generic letter to all of them.... Commented Feb 27, 2016 at 12:49
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    I don't see the big deal in writing many recommendation letters, honestly.
    – gented
    Commented Feb 27, 2016 at 21:49
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    I once was told by an American professor I met at a seminar that German professors tend to write rather to honest letters (because this is common in Germany) hence ruining chances for students in American PhD programmes where apparently an over the top laudatio is expected. Commented Feb 27, 2016 at 22:17
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    The academic culture is quite different in the US comparing to the countries in Western and Eastern Europe I have had some experience with. Having lived and studied previously in Europe I am still impressed how much personal attention American students get from the majority of the professors. We didn't even have "office hours" during semester where you can go to a professor's office and he will personally tutor you for free. I cannot also imagine asking the majority of my former European professors for 10+ recommendation letters unless I worked closely with them.
    – Vika
    Commented Feb 27, 2016 at 22:17
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    @user1862770 Yes, I saw that many times. Moreover, nowadays you are supposed to rate an applicant comparing to other applicants using the proposed percentage system. It's funny when all applicants coming from the US fall into top 2% or top 5% category in academic abilities, motivation, and ability for independent research while the applicants from Germany are in top 25%.
    – Vika
    Commented Feb 27, 2016 at 22:22

4 Answers 4


The answer is simple: you generally only write one letter per person and only customize it insofar as changing the name of the institution to which it is sent (if even that: "Dear Admissions Committee" works pretty well). If there are very different types of programs involved, you might customize a bit more, but not much. That means the incremental work needed for many letters is not much more than is necessary for one.

If you think about it, it should make sense: a recommendation letter is primarily about the candidate, not the institution. If a recommender writes the best letter they can for one institution, how much could it vary and still be the best letter for another?

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    It's not like the admissions committee doesn't know exactly what's going on. They're probably expecting to get a generic letter too, because that's what they send out. What is important is that a professor is willing to stake a small amount of political capital to support you. That's what they care about.
    – corsiKa
    Commented Feb 27, 2016 at 20:12
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    As someone who did graduate admissions for four years at my department's PhD program, I can confirm that I am absolutely not expecting the recommendation letters to be personalized for my program in any way. If there is really a personal connection to be made, this can be done by sending an email to the right person. Considering the amount of time I spend writing just one letter per candidate (including, of course, for graduate students, postdocs and junior faculty), the idea of writing separate letters for each of the places the candidate is applying to scares the willies out of me. Commented Feb 27, 2016 at 22:17

jakebeal's answer is spot on. I write (and send) virtually the same letter of reference to all places my students are applying. However, there are a few cases where I expect professors may write more than one letter for a student. In particular, I might expect a letter writer to prepare a substantially different letter to a program/department/institution/whatever where the letter writer has a personal connection or other inside information specific to that program. Perhaps you are asking your professor for a letter as part of a postdoc application, and you are applying to be a postdoc in the same research group where your professor did a postdoc ten years ago. I expect your professor will write a very different letter in this case.

For example, I write two letters for many of my students applying to PhD programs. I write a generic letter to most programs and a more specific letter to the program I graduated from. Since I am a recent alum of that program, I have the unique opportunity to connect my student's capabilities and aptitudes to the expectations of the program. I might send an even more personalized letter if the student is interested in working for my advisor or members of my dissertation committee.


The reason they bother to write those letters is because they also ask for recommendation letters for applicants themselves. So if I am asking applicants to send me reference letters, it is only fair for me to put in the time to write them.

Also, it is in my best interest that my students get the best position they can after they graduate. This will effect the quality of the next generation students I get.


I have recently written recommendation letters for my former undergraduate student who applied to 15 US PhD programs (including MIT, Harvard, Columbia, Chicago, and Berkeley). I think it's important to make changes in the letters when a student applies to top programs in order to emphasize some qualities of the applicant that a specific university wants to see. It really takes a lot of time even if you make small changes in those letters. The most frustrating part is when students don't even bother to send you a "thank you" email after all. I am not saying that all students are like that, but I've had a few who I wrote letters to, then they got admitted to their PhD programs without notifying me or expressing any gratitude for my time, and then some time after they emailed again asking for a new letter for some scholarships/conference invitation/etc. Should I bother to reply?

  • emphasize some qualities of the applicant that a specific university wants to see — Unless you were affiliated with MIT, Harvard, Columbia, and Berkeley, how can you presume to know what qualities those specific universities want to see?
    – JeffE
    Commented Feb 28, 2016 at 17:44
  • Should I bother to reply?Yes. Moreover, you should generously offer to write them a new letter, for exactly the reason that you agreed to write the first one.
    – JeffE
    Commented Feb 28, 2016 at 17:46
  • The most frustrating part is when students don't even bother to send you a "thank you" email after all. Right. I want my good students to succeed, but I do like to be at least thanked for my efforts. Commented Feb 29, 2016 at 22:34

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