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I am applying for math PhD and may have 4 letters of recommendation: One from my masters advisor, one from a professor I'm doing a small project with, one which I did undergrad research with and took grad algebra with, and one I took grad complex with. The last one is more recent in terms of me knowing him, but I did very well in his class.

For schools that either say "at least 3" or do not specify, should I do all 4 letters? Do I run the risk of the committee choosing the first 3 that they see, and discarding the 4th?

  • Only if the fourth recommendation is helpful. You should have your other letter writers form a committee to determine whether or not the fourth letter will be helpful. Only the letter is confidential. – Jacob Murray Wakem Nov 29 '17 at 20:27
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Personally, having one extra (a 4th) is probably not a bad idea. However, there are risks involved. First, just the logistics for interacting with 3 people for getting 3 recommendations is challenging enough. If you add a 4th person to ask for a recommendation then your work may go up by a good amount. Second, having a 4th raises the risk of having a negative statement from a recommendor that could hurt your chances.

  • Thanks for your input. I have asked all my recommenders if their letters will be strong, and I'm planning to ask the 4th writer this as well. So, in principal, I shouldn't have any weak letters unless they lied to me. If the 4th writer says he cannot write a strong letter (which may very well happen), then I will not ask him to write a letter. – Freddie Nov 28 '17 at 19:00
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    I cannot confirm your first argument. In my opinion, if one asks 4 persons, this involves not much more costs then asking 3 personen and the chances to get 3 letters are much higher as if one asked only 3 people. – yupsi Nov 28 '17 at 19:10
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    Also one bad letter out of 3 is worse than one bad letter out of four, so, yes, you can hurt your chances if the 4-th letter is worse than the first three but you can just equally well improve them if it is better. Formally sending four doesn't violate the requirement, as stated, in any way, so just play it by ear. – fedja Nov 28 '17 at 19:14
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    The biggest reason I mentioned the cost issue is because I have been both a PhD student asking for recommendations and have been asked for recommendations. In this day, when all of us are being overloaded with information and requests for help I feel guarded. Overall, I really don't think a 4th is a bad idea. It shows you have done extra work. – drsnark Nov 28 '17 at 22:52
  • (This might be obvious but) I'd like to add that if the instructions eg. ask for specific reasoning behind the extra letters of recommendation despite not explicitly forbidding them (this was the case for me, even though the short advertisement asked for "at least two"), it's most likely a good idea to actually have some reasons besides "I want to send more recommendations so that my application would automatically look better". – starless Nov 29 '17 at 8:58

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