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I have asked a professor that I took a year long project with to write a recommendation to support my application to a well-known, selective masters programme in the UK (my university is based in South Africa). The letter has already been submitted but the problem is, I have no idea how strong the letter is.

Some useful information: I think the project went fairly well and I will not have to interact with this professor again in any formal capacity.

Question: (1) Do you think it is reasonable to ask the professor about the strength of the letter he has submitted? (2) If so, how should I go about doing this?

I would like to do this for the following reasons:

  • If the letter is not so strong, I have other people who are willing to write me strong letters for my other applications (though none with the same reputation)
  • I can possibly try to change references for the current application (that the prof. has already submitted the letter for) since I have not submitted the actual application.

Any advice is welcome and appreciated.

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    No particular suggestion for the concrete situation, but for future cases, it would be wise to ask the professor if they can write a strong recommendation letter. – lighthouse keeper Oct 23 '17 at 14:31
  • I asked for the letter in person and it just so happens that I forgot to say "strong". The prof. seemed happy to accept but I want to avoid reading into that. – Dman Oct 23 '17 at 14:41
  • @Dman I would hope that most professors would give you some kind of indication as to the strength of the letter they can write you when you ask. In particular, a good professor will tell you if they can only write you a weak (or bad) letter and suggest you keep looking for faculty who could give you a better chance. – David Oct 23 '17 at 19:22
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It would be quite acceptable to ask for a copy of the recommendation letter (although your professor is not forced to supply it). That is probably a more reasonable request than asking if the recommendation is strong, which may require the professor to justify the recommendation.

Once the recommendation is submitted, you would also be entitled to request a copy directly from the institution you've applied to, as this is covered under the Data Protection Act.

Now, as someone who both writes references for students and reads them, I can tell you that the norm in the UK is for them to be restrained and factual. References that are full of hype are generally treated with suspicion.

Academic referees in the UK are also rather limited in what they are allowed to say. There are generally university guidelines which dictate the format. They usually have to be internally signed off before they can be submitted. Then a copy is kept on file.

Choosing referees is something that needs to be done carefully. Even with the best will in the world, an in-demand professor is not likely to be able to give this their full attention.

During my busy periods, when I was writing references for students regularly, I could get up to 20 requests a week. Normally, I'd have to write those in my free time, in the evenings. So, even though I would want to do my best for every student, references for anyone other than students I'd worked very closely with would become necessarily formulaic.

Choosing a referee who has had the opportunity to get to know you, who you have impressed in some way and who is not run off their feet with other activities is generally a sound strategy.

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    Interesting! In the US, I think a student asking for a copy of the letter would be considered inappropriate. – Dawn Oct 23 '17 at 15:40
  • See here: academia.stackexchange.com/questions/54584/… – Dawn Oct 23 '17 at 15:41
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    @Dawn But see also here for a non-US perspective: academia.stackexchange.com/a/71440/20058 – Massimo Ortolano Oct 23 '17 at 15:57
  • Yes! I think the best advice is for the OP to find out what the local conventions are. – Dawn Oct 23 '17 at 16:16
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    As Dawn points out, in the US it would be considered inappropriate to ask for a copy of the letter. We have a similar law (FERPA) which considers recommendation letters a part of the student's educational record which must be provided on request, so it is a common practice to have students sign a FERPA waiver which allows the professor to legally deny that request. It is of course entirely reasonable to ask about the strength of the letter (and is something the student/professor should discuss before writing the letter, not after). – David Oct 23 '17 at 19:19
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It is reasonable to ask about strength of a letter. Usually you ask in advance of the letter's writing.

You might consider using your next application to ask about the strength of the letter in general (probably the professor will use the same letter). For instance, you could say,

"I am also applying to Y. I will need fewer letters for that program, so I want to use my best letters. I am hoping you might guide me on letter selection by letting me know if you were able to write a very strong letter or an average letter of support for me."

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  • I suppose that the professor could always just share the letter as a response to this inquiry if that is more comfortable than commenting on the letter's strength. But still this approach opens communication on the subject. – Dawn Oct 23 '17 at 16:17
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I believe it is reasonable to ask a professor for a recommendation letter if you developed a close enough relationship where the professor could do so without compromising his or her integrity. Meaning, if the only way your professor can identify you is by your name and the grade you received in his or her class, no, I would not recommend asking for a recommendation at all...much less as for a "strong" recommendation.

It never hurts to ask for a recommendation; however, requesting how the document read might be pushing the boundaries.

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  • I think you are missing the point. I would like to know the strength of the letter given that it has already been submitted. – Dman Oct 23 '17 at 14:19

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