9

I'm an undergraduate mathematics student at a US university applying to graduate school. I took two classes with a professor and did extremely well - he loved me, and when I asked him to write me a letter of recommendation he promised to write a very strong one. He liked me so much that he actually sent me his letter so I could see what he thought of me.

The letter is highly flattering and I am extremely grateful, but it is only two or three paragraphs long, less than half a page. This made me nervous so I looked up features that a letter might have. This letter has only a bit of specific information and mostly speaks in vague, but highly positive, generalities - i.e. "the student did well in my very rigorous class" with no supporting evidence as to what made the class rigorous.

I am very worried that an admissions panel may see it as a vague, formulaic letter and discard it. I truly believe this professor has very high confidence in my abilities and that the letter is sincere, but I don't think that it is effective. I asked for the letter pretty early on in the semester and reminded him three weeks ago so I don't think time was the issue.

What should I do? Would it be rude to ask him to rewrite the letter with details and supporting examples? I am almost tempted to seek out a different professor to avoid asking him. Any advice would be useful.

  • 14
    i.imgur.com/sMqfqU6.jpg I don't know, this letter seemed to work well enough for John Nash to get into Princeton. – user41631 Dec 10 '16 at 21:29
  • @PatrickN. A short letter doesn't necessarily mean that you are short on qualifications. Charles Batchelor wrote this letter to Thomas Edison recommending Nikola Tesla: "My Dear Edison: I know two great men and you are one of them. The other is this young man!" pbs.org/tesla/ll/ll_america.html – iwantmyphd Dec 10 '16 at 23:16
  • 10
    In response to both of the above comments: although it is tempting to give classic and famous examples (they make good stories and are certainly educational in a certain way), when it comes to asking about contemporary academic practice, examples that are almost 70 years old are not very useful. Duffin's letter sent to Princeton in the year 2016 would not have the same effect. – Pete L. Clark Dec 11 '16 at 1:08
  • 3
    From my understanding, this is the post in a nutshell: I asked for a recommendation letter, and I got one. But it does not meet my expectation of length, so I want the offending author to make it longer and include specific incidents of my academic fortitude and work ethic...Is this more or less on point? Personally, I would think it would come across as not just rude, but possibly even have an air of entitlement. – NZKshatriya Dec 11 '16 at 2:02
  • 1
    @NZKshatriya - "not request an APA report" - agreed! Just compare the outline of what the letter should cover with what the letter does cover, and ask the reference if s/he is comfortable addressing any missing topics or points. My point is that an analysis of the content of the letter is more important than a word count. – aparente001 Dec 11 '16 at 3:16
15

Almost all letters of recommendation for graduate program applications are short -- at my previous university, for example, there was a field that letter writers could fill in that essentially only held the equivalent of a single paragraph. Fundamentally, for current undergraduates, it is rare that a professor has spent more than a couple of hours one-on-one with you, and so it's hard to really say much of any specificity -- as would be the case if one were writing for one's own graduate student or postdocs, for example.

In other words, since almost all letters are that short, you're not suffering any harm. Go on doing what you're doing well, and don't worry about the letter too much.

  • 3
    I don't quite agree with this. Yes, many grad school applications have a place where you can just type in what you want to say, but (i) it can be as long as you want and (ii) you can also upload a pdf file of the letter. In my experience, more than half the time faculty upload a letter, which is more than a paragraph long. To me the single paragraph letters read as coming from people who do not themselves have much experience with American-style graduate admissions, and thus they are liable to be weighted less strongly than the other letters. – Pete L. Clark Dec 11 '16 at 1:15
  • @PeteL.Clark: There is truth to this. I didn't mean to say that a letter should be that short. All I wanted to give is a frame of reference for how long letters of recommendation for undergraduate typically are -- namely on average not very much longer than 2-3 paragraphs. – Wolfgang Bangerth Dec 11 '16 at 2:17
  • 2
    Pete Clark is right about uploading pdf files. When I write a recommendation for grad school admission, I expect that it will go to several universities, so I write it (in TeX) and save the pdf file to upload whenever needed. On the other hand, this doesn't necessarily mean very long letters. I just checked the last couple of letters I wrote for undergrads, and, although they certainly had more than 2 or 3 paragraphs (one had 5 and the other 7), they were both slightly less than one page long. – Andreas Blass Dec 11 '16 at 2:58
5

Succinct isn't necessarily bad.

Rather than judging the letter by the number of paragraphs, analyze the content. Actually, before you do that, sit down and outline what you think a strong letter about you should touch on. Compare your outline and the professor's draft. If there are important aspects of you that didn't make it into the draft, let your professor know.

3

If the admission committee of the program you are applying to has heard of this guy, and respect his opinion, then even a letter with one line would be enough.

  • 2
    You think so? It would be very hard for me to read a one line letter as "This is not really worth any of my time." If the faculty member is really known and respected and also known for writing such short letters, then I guess the next one-line letter will go down the same as the previous ones. But I don't know anyone who writes such short letters (even for grad school). I think the minimum length of a letter that doesn't seem to be short-changing the student is two paragraphs (or one very long paragraph). – Pete L. Clark Dec 11 '16 at 1:12
  • @PeteL.Clark if both the letter writer and the admissions committee have a history, I think short letters happen. I've heard secondhand of (but not written or read any such) letters that read along the lines of "This is the one this year; let them in." But I otherwise agree with your larger point—a letter can be too short to be effective. – Matthew Leingang Dec 11 '16 at 19:13
0

It is quite normal for undergraduate student to get a short recommendation letter. The reason is obvious, because your relationship with professor is bound to the courses you take with him. The spectrum of knowing you is only your behavior and attitude during lectures and your grades. Unless if you have chance to collaborate with professor on a research project, there is a good chance to get more comprehensive recommendation letter. In addition the effectiveness of recommendation letter also depends on the profile of the professor as well.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.