Dear Professor Flake...
December 10, 2009 12:00 PM   Subscribe

Grad school application crisis: one of my professors who agreed to write a recommendation is completely flaking out. I've tried my best to communicate my needs, but she seems either too busy or suddenly, inexplicably disinterested in cooperating. I don't want to alienate her but I don't want to get screwed over when one of my references went off the grid.

I emailed three of my college professors back in August or September to see if they'd be willing to write recommendations on my behalf as I applied to grad school. They all sent back really nice, affirmative responses. Whew! One professor recommended that I use Interfolio, which is like a middle man for schools and professors providing references. Professors upload one copy of a recommendation, which is given its own email address. Instead of listing a professor's email in the online application, I list that email, sparing the professors the task of email five different universities with the same email.

Two of my professors uploaded recommendations right away, but the third (who was always a bit scatterbrained) has not. I've emailed her several times, the last email two ago, and she's replied that she will get to it. But she hasn't. My first application is due, recommendations and all, on Sunday. Interfolio seems to only work on business days, so essentially the last day is tomorrow. The university will not accept late or incomplete applications.

The thing is, I don't want to alienate the professor before she writes the application by sounding impatient and high-strung, especially since I have a far less intimate, friendly history with her than with my other two references. But obviously I don't want to get screwed over because she said she'd offer a rec and then didn't.

Clearly I'm overthinking this, but in my state of hair-tearing stress, I can't formulate an email that doesn't sound completely insane or accusatory. What should I say that sounds professional, understanding and urgent?
posted by zoomorphic to Human Relations (30 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
 
Do you by chance have this professors telephone number? Sometimes, a really nice heartfelt phone call can go further than emails back and forth, because you can't always decipher tone over email. I don't know if it will make her do it or anything, but she may be more likely to remember a phone call.
posted by Rocket26 at 12:08 PM on December 10, 2009


Two of my professors uploaded recommendations right away, but the third (who was always a bit scatterbrained) has not. I've emailed her several times, the last email two ago, and she's replied that she will get to it. But she hasn't. My first application is due, recommendations and all, on Sunday. Interfolio seems to only work on business days, so essentially the last day is tomorrow. The university will not accept late or incomplete applications.

1. Find your professor's office phone number and call her.

2. If that doesn't work, immediately contact another professor who you had a good experience with (even if they're not necessarily from your field--just anyone who can speak to your abilities as a student), explain the situation, and ask them to quickly write you a letter.

3. Contact the school and ask them if you can give them an extra email/change the email specified.

The thing is, I don't want to alienate the professor before she writes the application by sounding impatient and high-strung, especially since I have a far less intimate, friendly history with her than with my other two references.

You have, at most, a weekend (even without the Interfolio problem), and you're worried about alienating her? Don't. She screwed up.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 12:09 PM on December 10, 2009


You should get in touch with the admissions office for your grad school ASAP and explain this to them (if you feel badly saying that your professor's a flake, say that she had a family emergency or got swine flu or something). Recommendations are one area that's a little outside your control, so they will probably be pretty lenient.

After you do this, email your professor again. Do not tell her that you spoke to the admissions office; she might take this to mean that she can slack off more. Remember to thank her a lot.

(And good luck, from another grad school applicant!)
posted by oinopaponton at 12:11 PM on December 10, 2009


Don't email; call or go in person. Some profs get really behind on their email. But one more thing:

The university will not accept late or incomplete applications.

In my experience there is a often bit of unpublished leeway for prof recommendations. It's a professional courtesy that grad administrators extend to professors who, they recognize, often get swamped with letter requests at the last minute. I wouldn't necessarily count on it, but if the deadline arrives and still no letter, you may not be sunk, and you should submit anyway and tell them you're struggling with a prof who's late with your letter, and ask them the best way to get it to them.
posted by PercussivePaul at 12:15 PM on December 10, 2009 [4 favorites]


Professors are busy! And forgetful! Grad schools know this, and their deadline isn't really their deadline. The real deadline is when it goes to committee--you want a full file, but even then it's not impossible. Continue to apply good judgement and yes, contact the school.
posted by gensubuser at 12:17 PM on December 10, 2009


P.S. your flake prof may be counting on this leeway. I had a prof do that once and I almost died from the stress while he was like 'don't worry, prof deadlines are de facto several weeks later, it's cool'. Turns out he was right but he was not my favourite person at the time.
posted by PercussivePaul at 12:23 PM on December 10, 2009


Hmmm...I have had both versions of this. It is an awful feeling! Has she said she will definitely do it? If so, one of my profs last spring literally sent mine at 11:49pm when it was due at midnight. If this prof tends to be someone who waits until the last minute, but will get it done. I would let it go, because more than likely she'll get it done. Perhaps just send a quick, friendly e-mail re-emphasizing the final due date, friday at blah-blah-blah. Profs tend to do things on their own time frame. Like one of my other profs did his a month early, because he just gets everything done as soon as possible. The thing to remember here is that she is doing you a favor by writing you the letter, and I would try not to sound too entitled in the email.

From the other side of things, I have found that the recommendation deadlines are slightly flexible, when my third professor was in the hospital with pneumonia the week several of my applications were due. I had no idea what happened, I just knew he was late in turning in the rec and not returning any of my e-mails. I called the schools, and even though they said no late/incomplete applications on the website, all the admissions officers were like just make sure it gets in by the end of the week. Apparently this stuff happens all the time, professors flake, fall ill, are technologically incompetent, etc. I still was accepted at several of these programs (clinical psychology PhD/PsyDs), even with my several days late recommendation. As long as two are in, you show that you are doing your job, and its just the final prof who sucks.

If you are really concerned, perhaps see if you can get another professor to be on deck for you, if she does finally flake out? Lastly if your rec does end up late, just make sure you are in communication with the admissions officers as soon as possible. That ensures the most understanding on their part. I also assume the rest of you application complete?
posted by amileighs at 12:29 PM on December 10, 2009


Walk over to her office during office hours, see her, explain that it has to be done by the deadline, and could she take a few minutes to do it now, as otherwise you need to take every minute of the time you have left to find someone else to make the recommendation -- although you'd much rather have hers, in large part because it would mean a lot to you coming from her. If it's important enough to you that she do it now, it's important enough for you to show up in person, and that's the message you'll be sending.
posted by davejay at 12:42 PM on December 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


Just to clarify, I'm in NYC and this professor is in Charlottesville, Virginia. Office hours aren't helpful, but I've left a message on her office line. I'm hoping PercussivePaul's account of flexible-ish deadlines for professors is true.
posted by zoomorphic at 12:53 PM on December 10, 2009


perhaps see if you can get another professor to be on deck for you,

I graduated four years ago, and for various complicated reasons involving my university email and a fried laptop, have limited resources to recover material I wrote for classes that occurred before my last semester in 2005. I'm applying to difficult schools that will easily discount me if I have a rec from a TA who doesn't remember me and has no evidence of papers I wrote in the class. I'd have more options if I realized earlier in the year that Prof. Flake would bail, but at this point I'm stuck with her. Hopefully universities won't abscond with my money if a professor takes her sweet time writing a rec.
posted by zoomorphic at 1:09 PM on December 10, 2009


I work in a position where I handle graduate school application materials. Unless the admissions person is on a power trip (this happens) you are likely to get a phone call or email reminding you that you are missing a letter. Get the rest of your materials in on time.

Good luck!
posted by rachums at 1:14 PM on December 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


FWIW, I was once admitted a grad school on, I think, the stregth of two out of three letters, because when I checked my status online, it looked like they had never received the third letter. That may not be realistic in your situation, but sometimes these things are more flexible than they appear.
posted by Dasein at 1:31 PM on December 10, 2009


I had this same problem. With some schools it didn't matter, but I do think it hurt me with some other institutions. When I was soliciting (begging) for rec letters, I spread it out among four profs so that I could get a variety and in case any flaked. However, I only asked three to write for each school. The ones that only got two because of the missing third didn't like me, across the board.

But I would guess, as some people posted here, that some or hopefully most schools wouldn't hold a missing letter against you. The whole thing seems so ridiculous and arbitrary that I don't even know why they require a letter, if you show strong history, entrance essay, GRE, etc.
posted by dervish at 1:44 PM on December 10, 2009


Make sure that when you talk to the professor, she has everything she needs to write the letter (forms, addresses, etc.). If you worked with her a while ago and/or she didn't know you well, provide something to jog her memory and base the letter on, such as your resume, a paper you wrote for the class, your personal statement from your application.

When I've asked for rec letters (before/during grad school) in the past, the recommender has asked me to provide an outline of the letter. It's tough to do sometimes, but this might help her get going and get the letter in on time.
posted by supramarginal at 1:49 PM on December 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


Ask aomeone else. Professors who delay don't want to write the eval.
posted by effluvia at 2:09 PM on December 10, 2009


To second PercussivePaul, having been a grad school admissions person....if you get everything else in your application in on time and let them know, it's probably fine. Trust me, they have heard stranger/weirder/dealt with far less forthcoming applicants. Be very nice, very polite, and make it clear that you understand that you're asking for a favor...but if it's within a week or so of the deadline, the chances of it killing your application are minimal. Frankly, they get so many applications that they're going to be processing them for a few weeks before it goes out to committees anyway, so if it's a reasonable delay (a week to 10 days), it's not really any skin off the admissions people's backs.

If it is going to be more than a week-10 days and you can't get a back up letter, consider talking to the committee chair for the program. Again, they have heard this before and it's possible that, if you're otherwise a strong applicant, they'll actually help and/or just give you a bit more time to get a backup reference and tell the admissions people to send the rest of your file through anyway.

Having said that, having recently been the student in question? Take PhoBWanKenobi's advice. Ask someone else, be very sweet, and get a backup letter. No one in admissions will blink if you end up with 4 (at worst, you'll look like an overachiever (and yes, I was so freaked out by having done admissions that my poor admissions people ended up with 5. I still got in.)) and you'll feel better.
posted by eleanna at 2:25 PM on December 10, 2009


In my experience there is a often bit of unpublished leeway for prof recommendations. It's a professional courtesy that grad administrators extend to professors who, they recognize, often get swamped with letter requests at the last minute.

This is correct, from my experience on grad acceptance committees. No one in a position of power will care or indeed even notice, as long as the package is complete on evaluation day, which will be some weeks after the official deadline.

Ask aomeone else. Professors who delay don't want to write the eval.

Rarely. It isn't like the student is going to go away and never bother you again if you don't respond; so even professors who might be inclined to do this will learn quickly that it pays in terms of time and effort to just be up front that you couldn't write a good evaluation or that they don't know you well enough or whatever. Most professors are really busy, and being very organized isn't part of the job requirement for professors like it is pretty much everywhere else, so lots of extremely disorganized people wind up in academia. Writing evaluations, even for favorite students, are just well down on the list of priorities.
posted by Kwine at 2:25 PM on December 10, 2009


And, on preview: a letter from a current supervisor or a TA who barely remembers you along with 2 strong letters is better than only having 2 out of 3 letters. Or at least it was at schools I applied to/was involved with admissions for.
posted by eleanna at 2:26 PM on December 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


As far as actually answering your question, I like the office hour idea. It really isn't all that far from NYC to Charlottesville. Find Flake's office hours, take the day off of work, and show up. Odds are overwhelming that Flake will be quite apologetic, and might even write a better req than you otherwise might have gotten. This will also be good training for grad school: selling yourself and going to extra mile have more to do with your academic success than most people think, and you might as well get started early.
posted by Kwine at 2:31 PM on December 10, 2009


My first application is due, recommendations and all, on Sunday. Interfolio seems to only work on business days, so essentially the last day is tomorrow.

I'm fuzzy on how Interfolio works. Does the school you're applying to have to send an email to the Interfolio email address associated with that professor's recommendation, and then Interfolio emails back the recommendation? If that's how it works, then I really, really, really doubt that the school you're applying to is going to collect the recommendations on Sunday. They probably won't get to it first thing on Monday morning, either.

When you say Interfolio doesn't work on the weekends, does that mean only that materials cannot be requested from Interfolio on the weekends, or that materials cannot be uploaded over the weekends, either? Have you explained this to the professor? If not, perhaps you could send one last email saying something along the lines of, "The application for Xxxx is due on Sunday. I have discovered that Interfolio will not allow recommendations to be uploaded after [time] on Friday, until the start of business on Monday. I would really appreciate anything you can do to help me get my application completed by this deadline."

Alternatively, can the professor work around Interfolio? If she finishes the recommendation over the weekend, would she be able to email a copy directly to the graduate program, or does the grad. program prohibit that?

Ditto what everyone else has said about there being some unadvertised leeway in the grad school app deadlines (for the recommendations only—not for your materials). If the professor's recommendation comes in on Monday, I doubt that it will be held against you; the graduate admissions committee might not even know about the snafu.
posted by Orinda at 2:32 PM on December 10, 2009


I would also recommend emailing her a letter of recommendation that she can edit and send out. I find profs are often just the next level of grad student - disorganized at times, terrible for procrastinating, you have to keep on them to get work done that isn't their primary interest. Do whatever you can to make it easier on her to get things done, and harder for her to say no to at the same time.

Call her and tell her that you've sent a draft letter that you'd like her to edit and then forward to the grad school. Be every kind of nice and encouraging that you can muster. And then say thanks afterwards when she finally gets it in.

And as a fall-back, you surely must have a fourth person who might be willing to pinch-hit here... do the same thing, send them a letter for them to edit and be extremely courteous in requesting they be quick about it.
posted by lizbunny at 2:40 PM on December 10, 2009


As far as actually answering your question, I like the office hour idea. It really isn't all that far from NYC to Charlottesville. Find Flake's office hours, take the day off of work, and show up.

Good grief, don't do this. It's finals season in Universityland, and even if professors had regular office hours on Fridays during the fall semester, they're probably not holding their regular office hours any more. Moreover, it's just not that unusual for professors to write recommendations at the last minute, or even a bit past the deadline (see upthread for evidence), nor is it unusual for professors to neglect to respond to email. It is unusual for someone to drive six or seven hours just to bug a prof about a recommendation which, let us remember, isn't even late yet. zoomorphic is just nervous about the approaching deadline. If a student did this to me, I think I'd be annoyed and weirded out.

I say send one more email, maybe make one more phone call*, but then let it rest. If the recommendation still hasn't been uploaded by midday on Monday, then take appropriate action. (Contact the graduate program, arrange an alternate rec, etc.)


* If the prof. doesn't pick up at her office line, call the administrative assistant for the department, explain that you're a major who graduated four years ago, and ask her or him very, very sweetly, "Have you seen Prof. Flake today? I really, really need to get in touch with her about my grad school application and she's not answering her office line--do you know what's the best way to reach her?"
posted by Orinda at 2:53 PM on December 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


I work for a professor who is often difficult to find. What tends to work best for students who are trying to get letters of rec from him is to:

1. early and often - remind by email
2. talk to people who work for him - in my boss' case, if you talk to me, I will remind him too
3. call the departmental office and talk to the admin asst there. these people often run the whole place and can help you.
4. be abundantly clear about the deadline.

This is what works for him, YMMV for this woman.

Other things to remember: your professors are stressed out by finals too, there are a lot of students to deal with at this time of year, huge piles of papers to grade, and so on. Also, is your professor on a grant deadline? this can cause forgetfulness and generalized chaos.

Did you send her a resume and a short note explaining your academic history and why grad school is what you want to do? Often it is hard to write these letters - think about how much work it was to write a personal statement for your own application, this is a similarly difficult thing to write - if you can give her good background information it will be easier for her to write the glowing letter of recommendation that you deserve.

Good luck. I've gotten many worried phone calls from students and it usually works out.
posted by sciencegeek at 3:06 PM on December 10, 2009


Fair point about finals week office hours, but you'd be annoyed and weirded out if a former student was committed enough to her goals to drive six hours to come to your office hours? If she shows up and says, "I really, really want this, and I'm doing what it takes to make sure that I succeed?" That would irritate you?

This will hardly be the last time that zoomorphic has to go to great lengths to get some scatterbrained big shot to read her work or give her a meeting or write a recommendation or follow through on commitment x, or remember about promise y.
posted by Kwine at 3:08 PM on December 10, 2009


FWIW, I had this exact same problem a week ago--Interfolio and everything--and it worked out okay. I just had to get my prof on the phone. Emails didn't do much, but after talking to him for five minutes, I got his letter less than an hour later on Interfolio. So I would also recommend calling your prof.
posted by colfax at 3:12 PM on December 10, 2009


At the risk of derailing: Fair point about finals week office hours, but you'd be annoyed and weirded out if a former student was committed enough to her goals to drive six hours to come to your office hours? If she shows up and says, "I really, really want this, and I'm doing what it takes to make sure that I succeed?" That would irritate you? Yes. I'm going to get to that recommendation tonight, after I eat dinner and before I start grading the papers from my senior seminar, but first I have to finish writing the exam for my intro class and hand it off to the office staff for copying, and now you're getting in my face distracting me, and I can't just brush you off with a quick "don't worry, I'm on it," because you came all the way from freaking New York. You know that my work style is a bit scattered, and I know that nobody applies to grad school casually. What is this grand gesture supposed to convince me of? It's not impressive, it's just out of proportion.

An anecdote like "this person just drove six hours to remind me, in person, to get her recommendation in on time" is not going to look good in a letter of recommendation. It's going to make the person look "impatient and high-strung," which is what zoomorphic wants to avoid. The problem here is not that Professor Flake is unconvinced of zoomorphic's commitment. The problem, if there is one, is that Professor Flake has left this task to the last minute without giving zoomorphic any reassurance that it will get done by the deadline; or (less likely) Professor Flake has forgotten about the deadline. Either way, polite persistence via the normal channels of interstate communication is the appropriate solution.

posted by Orinda at 4:13 PM on December 10, 2009


Much good advice here, and I would add: be sure that your contacts with her (email or whatever) spell out in clear polite terms that this Friday Dec 11 is the deadline for getting the rec to Interfolio. ("Sorry to bother you about this again; just a reminder that..[today is the deadline]. " followed by "thank you so much" etc.)

Don't count on her to do the math. My guess is she's swamped with finals and has been hoping this could be put off until after grades are in.

The subject line of your email should say "Ref. letter deadline today", because she may be so busy that she's only scanning subject lines for triage and ignoring anything that can wait 48 hours.
posted by LobsterMitten at 4:36 PM on December 10, 2009


nthing politely calling Dr. Flake, the admission office, a backup recommender.

Some schools will happily take more letters than they ask for in case Dr. Flake comes through in the end. Make sure you make it very easy for backup, and consider a non-academic reference who knows you well over a academic one who does not, especially if your other two academic ones are strong. Plus, sometimes those outside of academic get more excited about this kind of thing. Make it REALLY EASY for backup to complete the letter.

FWIW, I was waitlisted and then accepted to a top a program on the basis of ONE letter. In this case, it seems losing the letter was the department's error... I actually didn't wind up going because they seemed a little bit like department of flake studies...
posted by lalalana at 4:56 PM on December 10, 2009


Thanks so much for talking me down the tree.

First, I can't get down to Charlottesville this weekend, as I have other apps to tweak and about a zillion other minor details to take care of. I do know this professor well enough to see that she'd be Really Annoyed if I showed up unbidden to her office during finals because my special snowflake ass wants her rec. We only clicked because we had similar movie interests and wound up exchanging emails over the years, so we're not really at the level where I can show up with a sad-puppy face and pre-stamped envelope. I have no reason to believe she's just not going to write the recommendation, just that she'll turn it in past deadline.

I left a message at her office line, and then called the grad program to let them know one letter of recommendation might be slightly delayed. Thank you, everyone, for that last advice, as the director of admissions was very understanding and allowed me some leeway. Obviously I won't tell Prof. Flake, who will no doubt send in her rec at 12:01AM, December 14th.
posted by zoomorphic at 5:40 PM on December 10, 2009


Odds are overwhelming that Flake will be quite apologetic, and might even write a better req than you otherwise might have gotten.

Oh my god, have you ever met an English professor?
posted by zoomorphic at 5:44 PM on December 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


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