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I'm specifically talking about Ph.D. programs. One of my letter writers is a well-known professor in the field. I did a 5-month research project with him last year through a fellowship from my university, and he knows my research output well, but is a bit scatterbrained. The project in question was considered "graduate level," and took place in Europe. This professor also traveled a lot that year since he was was nominated for an lecture series that had him traveling around the world to give talks at universities and labs. This unfortunately meant that our meetings were less often than we'd have liked, and were usually strictly research focused.

Last year, he wrote a reference letter for me for another fellowship, and he sent me an outline of things he would write about in the letter, asking me to look it over. He incorrectly wrote that I was a masters student (I was an undergrad at the time, to date only have a bachelors degree) and that I spent those 5 months doing work on my masters thesis (it was just an independent research project funded by my home university). I corrected him right away on that, but as I said...he's quite scatterbrained outside of research matters.

I think this professor's letter would carry a lot of weight in the programs I'm applying to since I know he has good things to say about my research skills and work ethic, and his name is well-known. But hypothetically, what happens if a letter of recommendation contains factual errors like that? From my transcripts and CV, it's quite obvious I've never been a masters student. Would that inaccuracy hurt me? Would the rest of his letter carry less weight? I'm probably being paranoid, but I'm curious about what happens if a situation like this occurs.

For those of you who have been on an admissions committee before, how would this impact my application?

Edit: (additional info garnered from comment)

The letter was originally written for my fellowship over a year ago now, and after I corrected the professor on the masters vs bachelors issue, I was told the corrections were made. If he uses that letter as a starting point [for a new letter], I should be ok. He was just keynote speaker for a conference this week so hopefully he's less busy after and more responsive (usually is). He is a European prof and I'm in the US.

(Also adding: the reason I'm slightly concerned and asked this question is because when he wrote the first letter, he had my CV and made that mistake. He's known for being scatterbrained among the entire lab outside of research. He somehow can remember obscure details about my project without needing reminders, though...)

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    I want to know what "scatterbrained" means ! – Mathematics Dec 6 '16 at 12:35
  • @Mathematics - adjective: scatterbrained, scatter-brained. (of a person) disorganized and lacking in concentration. synonyms: absentminded, forgetful, disorganized – Kevin Fegan Jun 7 '18 at 11:37
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To be honest, I would consider this to be a major flaw and almost certainly invalidate the letter. It may bring to attention the rest of the application, including the potential that it may be invalidated, too.

In my university, I was faced with a situation in which the reference letter had a discrepancy with pronouns. The applicant was female but the referee was writing using male pronouns (ie., he, him, his). We ran the letter through TurnItIn and found that the letter was cribbed from a source from the Internet. The entire application was rejected.

Admittedly, this is an extreme case. Still, it will raise red flags about your application. Our assessment team is rather experienced in these sorts of issues.

I recommend revising this if possible.

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    For what it is worth, some langagues (e.g. Korean) does not use gendered pronouns and native speakers of these languages may struggle to use the right pronoun when speaking English. Even when their English is otherwise perfect. – Taladris Dec 5 '16 at 14:53
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    And there are many trans* applicants for whom this is a major concern. – RoboKaren Dec 5 '16 at 16:39
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    @RoboKaren and Taladris raise good points. The system we had was designed to raise flags for review. No decision was ever made without the full consideration of the selection committee. I don't think it was perfect by any means, but I really believe it was as fair as we could make it. – user65587 Dec 5 '16 at 22:00
  • @RoboKaren Even in a trans* applicant though, I would expect applicants take enough care to ensure pronouns are consistent. And as Elmer mentioned, this is just to raise flags, not to reject on the spot. – David says Reinstate Monica Dec 6 '16 at 4:09
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    The applicants may be consistent in their self-presentation but you can't count on faculty to not make "mistakes". – RoboKaren Dec 6 '16 at 6:22
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You are in charge of your application, including (at least some of the contents of) the recommendation letter.

You can, and should, make the professor's job easier by providing all the information about yourself in a single file. Include basic information (such as the fact that you are an undergraduate student), gently remind him of the project that you did with him by including a copy of your project, provide your statement of purpose, CV, transcript... everything that you can think of. In addition, provide a short summary (format this so that it is easy to read!)

Insist on getting an email from him when he has submitted, and when you do get such an email, immediately follow up (preferably in person) by checking that the basic information is correct, while the letter is fresh in his brain.

If all of these precautionary steps do not put your mind at ease, then perhaps getting a letter from this professor is not worth the trouble, since this will show that he does not care about your career -- if he thought that you were the next superstar, he would not be this forgetful. Getting a letter from such a person cannot possibly carry that much weight.

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    Thanks, I sent him a follow-up email today reiterating my basic info. He already has a copy of full research report, and CV. Perhaps I'm making a mountain out of a molehill, since this letter he wrote for my fellowship was over a year ago now, and after I corrected him on the masters vs bachelors issue, I was told the corrections were made. If he uses that letter as a starting point, I should be ok. He was just keynote speaker for a conference this week so hopefully he's less busy after and more responsive (usually is). He is a European prof and I'm in the US, so in person is not possible – user1799323 Dec 5 '16 at 18:45
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I agree with the rest that if the selection committee sees these factual errors, it will put the whole application under thorough check (if not discarded right away).

What I would do in your place is correct the recommendation letter that he sent you and send it back to him. That will allow him to take a quick look you haven't changed anything critical from his perspective (e.g. didn't add "he's the best student I ever had"...), sign it and send it back to you. That's in general easier for professors that have a lot in their mind or they are too busy to check this kind of "details".

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If I have understood correctly, you are concerned that if the professor inaccurately describes you in his letter as a master's student, instead of an undergraduate, in contradiction with your transcript and other application materials, this factual error might make discredit the reference, render it unusable, and call your whole application into question. (Correct me if I did not get that right!)

People make mistakes. If the letter has a red flag that suggests it might be a bad copy-and-paste job, and the text is found to be verbatim identical to something published on the internet, that is one thing. If it has some factual inaccuracies about some chronology of your educational career, that's another thing.

Keep in mind that the people reading the letter are smart people. A careful reader will be able to distinguish between the two scenarios I described.

For the new letter, yes, you may follow up and double-check with the professor

I can understand if this professor's absent-mindedness leaves you a little doubtful that the correction was actually made, even if he provides an assurance that it was.

However, keep in mind that if the committee is in any doubt about the reliability of the reference, they can always contact the professor for clarification and additional information.

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If your relationship with him, and his personality allow it, you could politely mention (remind him of?) the factual errors, and provide him with a corrected complete copy of his original letter that he only needs to sign. Present this as "his time is valuable, and you want to take up as little of it as possible", avoiding any suggestion of "you got this wrong and I need to do it to make certain it's correct". Make it as little effort for him as possible - self addressed, stamped envelope, etc.

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    "provide him with a corrected complete copy of his original letter that he only needs to sign" Yes! - people are busy - make their job as easy as possible. It's totally fine to edit it for factual content as long as you send it back to the person for their signature. However, it's not ok to make changes w/o their permission and pass along as if it's the original. – squarecandy Dec 6 '16 at 2:06
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I will say that if the professor in question is as well-known as you suggest, a lot of people will understand that someone in his position could easily make a mistake like that in a letter of recommendation for an undergraduate student.

If you were pressed for time (e.g., impending application deadline), I would submit the letter anyways along with a note that you i) recognize some (small portion) of the recommendation letter contains minor factual errors, and ii) have asked the professor to provide a new letter.

If it gets down to brass tacks, they can always check with the professor himself.

Of course, the ideal is to have the professor provide you with a corrected letter, but as he is important (in his field), busy and scatter-brained, it's very possible you will never get that correction.

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