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I asked a professor from my online graduate degree to write a letter of recommendation. It was when I first started looking at graduate school, so was not prepared with what you would usually want to give a professor, especially one you had never met in person. The exchange went like this

Me: "Dr. XXXXX,

I was a student of yours at XXXX from 2011-2014. I will be separating from the military in the fall and am looking to pursue another Master's degree in Food Science. I hope to fuse this with my work at XXXX and my previous biochemical engineering degree in order to work as an R&D chef focused on Nutrition. I was wondering if you wouldn't mind endorsing a letter of recommendation for me. It would be a great help in my application process. Thanks so much for your time."

Professor: "Yes, I will be happy to provide a letter of recommendation to you. Please, let me know specific details and whom it should be sent to."

Me: "Thanks so much for the quick response. I'm actually looking at colleges right now, but as soon as I get them narrowed down I will send you the contact information. As far as specific details, is there anything you are particularly looking for? Or should I just include the classes I attended that you taught? GPA? The focus of my studies? Once again, thanks so much for your help. I really appreciate it."

Professor: "I do not need any additional information. Let me know when you need letter to be sent."

Is this basically, you didn't come to me prepared. Now you're getting a bad letter? Or maybe my record was looked up and showed something bad? I got all A's in the classes and was the supervisor of my capstone project which was also an A. Since then I've sent my resume and some facts to work off of as well. Communication had been normal since then, usually a quick response with short replies. I feel like I may just be being paranoid, but I figured I'd get some unsolicited opinions on whether it's worth the risk (if there is a risk) to use his letters.

The professor is a Dean at the college and has been exposed to my work the most. I've contemplated possibly asking politely what happened during that exchange, but I can't for the life of me figure out how I would even approach that. One letter has already been written and submitted to a school.

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    Unrelated quibble: you "figure [you'd] get some unsolicited opinions"…but the purpose of your question is precisely to solicit opinions, so they're not unsolicited >_> – wchargin Apr 29 '16 at 23:29
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    As someone who did an undergrad at a university where EVERYONE was running around asking for way too many recommendation letters, I suspect, given that it is from an online degree program, that the professor has several pre-written letters and he will just replace your name into the letter and send it to all the institutions. I doubt it will be a bad letter, though it may not be a particularly helpful letter either (as it will probably be pretty general). – somerandomdude Apr 30 '16 at 4:20
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    Relevant comic. – silvascientist Apr 30 '16 at 5:28
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    If you got A's, you should be one of his best students. I didn't teach for long enough to get students asking me for letters, but I wouldn't need any reminders of my best students. - I would probably have a form letter that my best students matched with sentences I could delete if they weren't true: On time. Asked intelligent questions. Did good work. Top of class. etc... Stop being paranoid, and good luck with your future endeavors. – Aaron Hall Apr 30 '16 at 14:02
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I would read these responses as: "I am happy to write you a letter of recommendation, I am busy, and just want know where to send my letter".

As a professor, I get literally hundreds of emails everyday, many of which, like yours, I want to reply to, but I don't have time to write elaborate or detailed responses. I read the responses you got as terse but professional.

If I am approached by a student I don't feel I can write a good recommendation letter for, I usually tell them this, and suggest they ask someone else. I think this is common practice.

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This is the correct reply and just the way the exchange would have gone for one of my students. You should be pleased.

The professor will not need any information because the academic records and personal recollection provide everything that is necessary to put in the reference letter. If you had to provide information then the reference provided would be less worthy. Anyone can write from information provided, but to do it from personal experience will be so much more valuable.

The fact that reference will be sent direct to the colleges will give it so much more weight. A confidential reference from a professor that remembers teaching you is the best you could ever get.

Be more grateful and less paranoid.

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Just to reiterate a point that is often misunderstood: a letter of recommendation that mostly refers to second-hand information is not positive. The best LORs refer to first-hand experience of the letter-writer with the student. What's the point of having the letter refer to things that are documented in transcripts and such? It adds nothing. Nothing. (Unless there's either positive or negative trouble/action that can be explained by adding information...)

So, when I write letters, the main point is to speak of my first-hand knowledge of the student's past accomplishments, my perception of their interest, motivation, and potential, based on my direct contact with them... and "looking them in the eye".

Email contact is more tenuous, sure, but, still, it has been known to be an adequate mode of communication "first-hand", not just a notifier of events elsewhere.

So, if your former teacher has a similar attitude as mine, then (s)he'd have no need at all for any further information... because his/her letter would, and should, be based on first-hand knowledge of you.

  • I think you nailed it. Just a guess on my part, but I wouldn't be surprised if the O.P.'s revelation ("I was the supervisor of my capstone project which was also an A") is the first-hand knowledge that is coming into play here. – J.R. May 2 '16 at 4:03
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A professor will not likely tell you that he would be "happy to provide a letter of recommendation" and then proceed to write you a terrible letter of recommendation. Much likelier, if the professor felt they could not in full honesty write you a compelling letter of recommendation, they would let you know that you would probably be better off finding someone who could write you a stronger letter of recommendation (i.e. someone who recognizes some other qualities in you that would let them write a stronger letter of recommendation). The fact that the professor has indicated he is happy to write you a letter of recommendation means that he is happy to write you a letter of recommendation. To say anything to that effect and then proceed to write a poor letter of recommendation would just be mean-spirited and dishonest.

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It does not sound like he is going to intentionally write you a bad letter of recommendation. Presumably, he has access to the classes you have taken and the grades you have gotten (potentially you entire transcript). That said, not wanting to know more about what you have been up to is not a great sign. It is much easier to write a good letter of reference that is tailored to a application, if you have seen the application.

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The answer to the question title, as opposed to the specifics of your case, is "Yes, it can happen".

A bad letter of recommendation may be unintentional - either because the recommender does not actually know you, and this shows by him not discussing first-hand experience, or because the letter may be short and generic etc. But if you're not sure someone has a high opinion of you, it is not impossible he recalls something negative and will let that mix in with what he might write. Finally, in some cases, recommenders get contacted by future employers/academic institutions, and if they don't follow up with some positive banter, that might be work in your disfavor.

So, bottom line: If at all possible, get a letter of recommendation by meeting with the recommender in person, telling him what you plan on doing, etc. Otherwise it might be a bit of a risk.

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Be very pleased this instructor is willing to give you a recommendation letter. If you are super curious what he will say, ask him for a CC sent to you, to put in your resume file. Just in case you change your mind and chose another school. You won't have to bother him again since you have a copy of the letter and can just forward it. It may work different for school ref. Letters but every Supervisor etc. I have every asked for a reference sent me a copy anyway.

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