I am a decently good student (3.8 gpa, 4th year undergraduate). I have gotten A and A- in all major courses (except a B- right as I transferred), but I have a concern. I have Asperger Syndrome and dislike social encounters and crowds; therefore, I have always done my work in solitude and avoided interaction with peers or faculty whenever possible. I am sure that I am a good student, so I was convinced on this basis that I'd be a good candidate for a PhD program. Now I am finding out, however, that 3 letters of recommendation are expected to accompany an application to a US PhD program (in philosophy).

None of the professors whose classes I've taken, despite my above average work (including a handful of A+ essays), know who I am or what I've done or what I'm capable of, etc. Therefore I feel very hesitant to ask for a letter of recommendation, as I expect it cannot contain more than a restatement of my transcript in some way. [Even if I explain that I had good reason not to interact with others, that doesn't retroactively cause anyone to know me better.]

If I were to ask my professors/lecturers (past and current) for a letter of recommendation, am I correct in concluding I will likely get none, or at least none that are good? Additionally, is it true that one cannot apply to a PhD program in the US with no recommendations? Finally, if I secure 3 mediocre letters of recommendation, should I apply just in case I'm accepted?


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    So... have you actually asked any of your professors for a LoR? Before you worry about no one being willing to write one for you, verify whether or not that's even a problem. And any decent professor will tell you if they don't feel confident in writing one for you.
    – tonysdg
    May 8, 2017 at 0:41
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    "None of the professors whose classes I've taken, despite my above average work (including a handful of A+ essays), know who I am or what I've done or what I'm capable of, etc." You lost me a little bit here. A professor whose class you've taken and done well in should know who you are. Also, some of them will know at least some of what you've done -- namely the A+ essays -- and thus some of what you're capable of. If you bring back the A+ essays, they have something to talk about that is not a restatement of your transcript. I think you're being too negative. May 8, 2017 at 0:47
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    @PeteL.Clark Since mostly the work is graded by TAs, it seemed reasonable to me to assume that it's possible I got an A+ but the professor didn't read the paper. to tonysdg: In the event I do this, I was wondering, assuming I get 3 at least mediocre letters, can that be adequate for application?
    – Ryan A
    May 8, 2017 at 0:56
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    To be successful in a PhD program, you must develop close working relationships with faculty. I would suggest learning that skill before you start your PhD, because once you start your PhD, you will face a time limit to apply that skill (typically the deadline to advance to candidacy). Your university likely has a professor with Aspergers who can advise you on how this is done. May 8, 2017 at 2:20
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    I think you are right to be a bit concerned as good grades will not distinguish you from the hundreds of other similar applications. That said, simply 'okay' LoRs shouldn't stop you from applying as there are other components to an application (statement of purpose, writing sample, etc.). Are you applying in the typical fall cycle? If so, you still have time this summer to become more involved - but you will have to ask your professors if they know of or have any outside of class opportunities to do so.
    – user58322
    May 8, 2017 at 7:04

2 Answers 2


Yes, you can ask for recommendations from people you don't know well; send an email with one to three of your best papers attached, as well as an unofficial transcript; in the body of the email, remind the professor which course(s) you've taken with that person. Include a sentence or a paragraph about what draws you to the idea of grad school, that is, show your spark.

Yes, you can apply for grad school with mediocre letters; you may or may not get in. (I do not know whether the letters you would harvest at this point would be mediocre or not.) You are right that this might not be the optimal way of proceeding.

Now I'll address what you asked in a comment.

"What does being more involved look like?" In other words, as a student with Asperger's, who is not naturally outgoing or extroverted, how can I get to know my professors better, with the goal of garnering more effective letters of recommendation?

I'm glad you asked this well in advance of application season, because this gives you time to get to know potential letter writers before you really need the letters.

  1. Ask questions and contribute to class discussions.

    (You've done this -- check!)

  2. Visit office hours to start to build an academic relationship.

    You don't have to need help with a project in order to visit office hours. If you are not sure how to structure a conversation in office hours, you could send an email requesting an appointment (so that the professor isn't thrown off thinking you're just coming in for five minutes to, for example, request clarification of an assignment); if I were in your shoes I would say, quite clearly,

"I would like to go to grad school and am hoping to get to know you better, so that I can comfortably ask you to write a letter of recommendation. However, I have Asperger's and am not accustomed to visiting office hours, but I would like to try; I may need some help getting started with having a productive conversation." (You can use this as is or modify it to make it your own.)

  1. You can also start a conversation through email. Some individuals are more comfortable with email than in-person visits. If you're not sure which would work better for you, you might want to try both approaches.

    In office hours and in email correspondence, in order to break the ice sometimes it is helpful to share a list of universities you are thinking about applying to, and ask for help in narrowing down the list, or adding to it (depending on the length of your list!). In other words, you can ostensibly be asking one thing, as a way of getting the ball rolling.

  2. Note that you can ask your university's office of students with disabilities for assistance if you want to. There is no guarantee that they will help, but they might, and as long as you don't put all your hope in that external assistance, there's no harm in trying. (Some of these offices are great, some less so.)

  3. You might find it helpful to have a grad-application buddy. Sort of a partner in crime. Someone who's going through the same process as you, and you support each other through the process. In fact, your application buddy might go with you to the first couple of office hours visits for moral support.


Is there a department of philosophy at your current institution? Are there any formal/semi-formal ways that professors and graduate or undergraduate students in philosophy meet as a group? Such as a seminar series or colloquium? Assuming you are applying for the fall where deadlines are often somewhere around December 1st, you still have time to participate in these. If you don't know where to find out about these sorts of events, it would be appropriate for you to ask one of your professors, especially if you state your future interest in graduate school. "I am interested in graduate school in philosophy and I was wondering if there are seminars that graduate students here participate in, and if so, if I can join as well."

Understandably, these might be uncomfortable situations for you, but perhaps your shared interest in philosophy would help distract you from the social aspects (especially because it sounds like you successfully cope in lecture settings, and have even been comfortable asking questions, which might put you ahead of many fellow students who would otherwise identify as neurotypical).

Otherwise, or in addition, how do you prefer to express yourself? It sounds like you have some success with writing. I think you could also write to a current/former professor who shares some of your interests: "I am interested in topic XXX and I am interested in a future in graduate school in philosophy. I dislike some social situations because of Asperger Syndrome but I am interested in discussing the topic with you. Would you have time and be willing to read and comment on some writing I intend to do on the subject outside class (~xx pages)?"

Professors may or may not have time to accommodate you with that request, but at a minimum it shows that you have some interest in the topic beyond coursework which won't hurt you, and in the optimal situation, you will interact with that person more closely and have an opportunity both to express your interests and abilities and to have a contact person for suggestions for other aspects of the graduate application process (such as particular programs/professors at other institutions that will also align with your interests).

And just to add a response to your actual title question: No I do not think it precludes you getting recommendation letters, but you will probably not get the one stellar letter that makes an admission committee look extra close. Depending on how the rest of your application looks as well as the personal opinions of the admissions committee, it might not matter at all in any case. Recommendation letters can be difficult to interpret. Given the time you have between now and when applications are likely due, I would advise that you make some effort or set a goal to have at least 1 professor who can give you a more personal letter of recommendation, through some of the strategies I suggested as well as @aparante001. Even if you don't feel like you are able to accomplish this goal, I would suggest you apply anyways with whatever letters you are able to obtain. If your coursework is as strong as your impressions are, I think those letters will read much better than mediocre, they just won't be intensely personal.

  • I forgot about seminars. Great suggestion. May 9, 2017 at 22:08

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