How do you handle a poor recommendation from a professor you still have to take classes from?
January 24, 2011 7:40 AM   Subscribe

How do you handle a poor recommendation from a professor you still have to take classes from? (Special Snowflake details inside)

Asking for My SO: My SO is applying for graduate programs and sought the recommendation of a professor that she had taken three classes from. For the first class she received a C, the second a B and the third a B+. While these were not the most stellar grades, however; the course was challenging and she worked hard to earn the grades she did. She often sought out the professor during office hours, took on additional academic work to improve and generally put in extra hours to achieve the higher grade in the second and third class.

She thought the professor would make a good recommendation because she had not only shown improvement in a subject that was challenging for her; she worked closely with the professor during office hours and the instructor understood her struggle.

Last month she was applying for a graduate programs and asked for the recommendation, it was to be sealed and delivered from my SO to the programs she was applying to. Fast forward to now. Through a non related twist of events my SO is now holding off on applying for grad schools for a year. The dated recommendations that she had received were no longer going to work and she will have to seek out new ones when she does apply.

Tempting fate she decided to open the recommendation (all the other recommendations had been left unsealed for her to read before submission.).

Turns out the recommendation was awful, not just poorly written and addressed to the wrong schools, but actually recommending that they do not accept her. The letter was full of thinly veiled insults and went as far as to list the lowest scores for all assignments completed during her course. It was more then what I would say in polite company.

Apart from being generally upset about receiving a dress down from a tenured faculty member, the letter would have sunk her applications; applications that would have cost thousands of dollars and countless hours. Not to mention being unable to attend the universities. I also have concern that she might be doing the same thing to other students. My SO narrowly missed the stream of rejection letters that would have come from this; I can’t help but wonder if someone else didn’t.

While I respect the professor’s opinion (I think she was wrong) I see no need for her to do this. She could have just turned the request down. I can think of a myriad of options that would have been much nicer, and would have saved my SO huge amounts of time and money. Even if her recommendation is that my SO does not attend grad school the professor could have said “I do not think you are ready for grad school” rather than letting her believe she was getting a positive recommendation.

Here is the real dilemma; she still has one class left that must be taken with her professor. She is now (rightly) dreading class and has a distinct feeling like the professor is “out to get her” I am inclined to believe her.

So the TL;DR: What to do when a professor (at a California school) writes a sealed extremely negative recommendation and you have to take a class with them. Was the professors letter within reason, or was she acting out of line, and how would you handle it?
posted by anonymous to Education (39 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
 
The professor was totally out of line. I would expect anyone not able to give me a good recommendation to bow out gracefully when I asked for one.

Your SO should take the issue to her academic advisors. IMO someone at the school should know what that professor is doing to her students and their futures.
posted by Kronur at 7:54 AM on January 24, 2011 [15 favorites]


I agree that the tacit understanding is that when an applicant asks you to write a letter of recommendation, either write a good recommendation or politely decline the task. The applicant is asking for an advocate, not an unabashed assessment of their abilities.

However, I would not dream of asking for a recommendation from someone who gave me a C, even if I showed improvement. It seems like asking for trouble.

What to do now? If she has to take that class with that professor, I'd go into siege mentality--dedicate extra effort to that class and do her best. If she can take the credit elsewhere, that would be better. It will surely not be a good experience emotionally, and possibly academically.

I think that trying to bring this up with the administration is not going to go well. I don't think reading the evaluation was a classy move (though not as bad as writing the bad evaluation), and it doesn't speak well of your SO to get embroiled in intrigues as she's applying for grad school. If she HAS to take this class, bringing this up with the administration is going to make taking that class very difficult. If the does NOT have to take that class, should should do everything in her power not to.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 8:03 AM on January 24, 2011 [5 favorites]


I've always been told that one shouldn't accept the responsibilities of writing a letter of recommendation if it will not be a letter of recommendation, or at least to be forthcoming if it will not be at least generally positive. To that extent, I think that the professor was out of line and, frankly, pretty tacky to write what it sounds like they did. That said, it is probably generally good advice to not ask for letters of rec from professors from whom you've received Bs and Cs unless you know for some other reason that it will be a strong one.

As to the question of the prof being out to get her, I doubt it. It sounds like, though the prof wrote her a bad recommendation, as a teacher she's provided the assistance that your girlfriend has sought out and her grades have shown improvement every time. It's serious business in terms of academic ethics to not grade fairly, and she hasn't shown any hint of doing that. I'd suggest that your girlfriend try to compartmentalize the class and think of the prof as someone who is paid as a professional to teach a subject and offer quite assistance in learning it. Stay professional, as much as I can understand how that would be uncomfortable.
posted by Schismatic at 8:10 AM on January 24, 2011 [3 favorites]


IAAP, but IANYSO'sP, nor am I a CaP.

1) This was a sealed letter? Did your SO sign a form waiving her right to read it? Because I'm guessing that the professor was operating under the impression that the letter was confidential. (In practice, this is a bad impression to have, as we all know about students who manage to see the "confidential" letters anyway.)

2) That being said, I agree that the prof should not have written the recommendation if she couldn't say anything positive. However, there's nothing unethical per se about writing a negative recommendation. On preview: your SO can indeed take this to an adviser, but unless the professor intentionally misrepresented her performance--as opposed to giving a negative evaluation--I would be very surprised if anything happened (and see #4 below).

3) But then again, revealing actual grades may well have crossed the line, depending on the school lawyer's interpretation of FERPA. (For comparative purposes: my campus does not allow me to mention any grades in a letter of rec. I can say that the student's performance fell into such-and-such a percentile ranking in relation to other students, but I can't name an actual grade.) Here, your SO may have a case with higher-ups.

4) Still, I would not like to reveal that I had unsealed a sealed letter, if I had already waived my right to read it. If that's what your SO did, she may have a problem there.

5) In practice, the professor does not appear to be "out to get her" in class, given that your SO's grades have actually been improving steadily. However, your SO now knows that this professor does not think that she is graduate school material, which is an entirely different issue.
posted by thomas j wise at 8:11 AM on January 24, 2011 [3 favorites]


Was the professor's letter within reason, or was she acting out of line?

I always tell my students, when asking for a recommendation, to specifically ask if the person would be comfortable writing a positive recommendation. It sounds like your SO assumed that the rec would be positive, but did not ask. I don't know why the prof didn't just turn her down, but she didn't (maybe she felt pressured). Anyway, the letter wasn't very nice, but that's life. The prof was not acting out of line. If your SO did ask that question, and the prof said she would write a positive rec, then the professor is a D-bag. But that is also life.

And how would you handle it?

I wouldn't have opened a sealed letter but would instead have destroyed it unread. It was sealed to prevent my reading it. Bad on your SO. She must live with the consequences of her curiosity. Suck it up. Take the class. Work hard. Graduate.

And next time, get recommendations from someone else.
posted by etc. at 8:13 AM on January 24, 2011 [2 favorites]


Speaking as a faculty member: yes, the professor was out of line, and there's really nothing you can do about it. If there's really no way to avoid this professor in the future, then I recommend your SO keep her mouth shut, take the required courses, and then (and only then) privately warn her friends away from getting recommendations from this professor. Think of it this way: the professor, despite having this negative opinion of your SO, already gave her what you seem to be implying are fair grades for the work your SO did in the three courses. If the prof doesn't know that your SO read the letter, this probably won't change. If the prof does know, then this might very well change.

That said: As tacky as the letter was, it was still unethical for your SO to open it. Sealed letters are provided with an expectation of privacy, and — if they're positive — carry more weight than unsealed letters, since they're assumed to be more "unvarnished" than unsealed letters. Directly confronting the professor about it is definitely going to cause grief for your SO. Going to a higher-up (department chair or dean) is similarly going to make your SO look bad. This is why there's really nothing your SO can do beyond keeping her mouth shut, plowing through the courses remaining with this prof, and (maybe) start a whisper campaign against her once said courses are completed.
posted by Johnny Assay at 8:14 AM on January 24, 2011 [13 favorites]


I agree with all of the above, stating the that professor was out of line and should have gracefully declined to write a letter in the first place. Johnny Assay also has it right that a whisper campaign is the way to go. No good will come of trying to fight the professor through the administration on this. Faculty who behave this badly almost always do so because they know their friends will help them get away with it. Starting a fight is asking for trouble. Warning other students will help everybody much more.
posted by yeolcoatl at 8:20 AM on January 24, 2011


It's hard to believe that someone would take the time to write such a negative recommendation. I don't have time to do that sort of thing myself.

But above all, I would avoid revealing that you opened a sealed letter. This will get around to other professors who may not want to write you recommendations themselves.
posted by grouse at 8:25 AM on January 24, 2011 [4 favorites]


Can you point out on the final course evaluation everything the professor did wrong or everything about their teaching style that made the class unnecessarily difficult?
posted by WeekendJen at 8:57 AM on January 24, 2011


Very unusual to write a negative recommendation letter, but I agree with the folks above that you cannot confront the professor about it. Although writing a negative letter is deplorable---it's standard practice to write a letter that states only facts if you have nothing nice to say---opening a sealed letter is unethical and may land your SO in front of a disciplinary board.
posted by eisenkr at 9:02 AM on January 24, 2011 [1 favorite]


But then again, revealing actual grades may well have crossed the line, depending on the school lawyer's interpretation of FERPA. (For comparative purposes: my campus does not allow me to mention any grades in a letter of rec. I can say that the student's performance fell into such-and-such a percentile ranking in relation to other students, but I can't name an actual grade.) Here, your SO may have a case with higher-ups.

I am not a lawyer but I have been through FERPA training and deal with data and processes covered by FERPA.

For all practical purposes there's little point in concerning yourself with the FERPA aspects of this letter. There's a case to be made that this falls under legitimate purpose and/or requested disclosure. Just as your transcripts can be sent to anyone you like if you request it, you can waive your protections in part or full. A request of an academic letter of recommendation would likely be viewed that way - you are by definition asking the writer to disclose aspects of your academic performance. If including an actual grade might be a bit oddly compulsive that doesn't make it a violation.

Further, FERPA is not privately actionable so the best you can do is complain to the Department of Education. While an investigation - if it goes far enough that the school is notified - might be a minor annoyance to the professor, odds are that what would most likely happen is everyone getting some reminders/training about what is and is not acceptable to put in a letter of recommendation.

As far as the sealed letter... I am academic staff, not faculty, so take that for what it's worth. However I think the seal is more a prevention of tampering and cherry-picking than an ethical pledge to remain unaware of the contents once they have been submitted. But the above comments show you that ofter disagree and your SO may be viewed negatively if she reveals that they were opened.

I'd avoid any disclosure or fight-picking at least until this institution is completely in her rear-view mirror... which might qualify as "never" depending on what sort of support she might need from people there. You never know who is buddies with who or who has an us-vs-them mentality. Being known as someone who has gone up against a faculty member will get you looked at askance by individuals who you wouldn't expect it from.

There's enough personal opinion involved here that I think your SO should just take this as a lesson learned about this creep and let it go. She should be prepared to be asked about the letter, by the way - someone who would take the time to write a negative letter rather than just beg off is someone who will be curious about the result. I think she should practice her lying so she is prepared to say "I decided to hold off a year so I dumped all the materials in the shredder. I hope you'll have the time to write an updated one when I restart the process six months from now."

And don't ask again.
posted by phearlez at 9:20 AM on January 24, 2011 [3 favorites]


I don't have any problems with your SO's opening the letter. I was specifically advised by people (teachers included) to ask for an extra letter (ie. if you are applying to 3 schools, ask for 4 sealed letters) so that you can check that you are receiving a good recommendation before sending them on. However, I agree with others that this does prevent you from questioning the professor or taking it up with higher ups on it. Just let it go and thank your lucky stars/share this info with your friends. Don't ding the professor's course eval unless the course earned it.
posted by katers890 at 9:23 AM on January 24, 2011 [1 favorite]


The professor committed a minor breach of etiquette/politeness by writing a bad letter rather than refusing to write any letter; this is usually not done, but she may have thought there was a reason (such as thinking that she knew better why this student ought not to go to grad school than other writers would be likely to know). The student committed a more serious breach of ethics by opening the letter (it's not a hanging offense or anything, but it's a pretty clear and unambiguous no-no that you shouldn't admit in public).

What to do? Find another recommender, if you can, and certainly don't go back to this professor for an updated letter next year. Aside from that, probably best to just try to forget about the whole thing. At most, if you know any other students with bad grades from this professor who might also be asking her for letters, warn them off. In the remaining class with this professor, the student should just try to be completely professional and on top of things, focus on the material, and avoid even thinking about the relationship with the teacher at all. If you're like most undergrads, you'd probably be surprised how little the professor's personal feelings about you enter into her evaluation of your performance in the class.

Additional unsolicited advice: anyone who's getting Bs and Cs in undergraduate classes should probably not even be considering graduate school in that discipline. One grade below A in the field might be an outlier, but several should be a red flag — both for readers of the application and for the applicant herself.
posted by RogerB at 9:28 AM on January 24, 2011 [14 favorites]


the seal is more a prevention of tampering and cherry-picking than an ethical pledge to remain unaware of the contents once they have been submitted

Just to be clear, while this may be a valid interpretation of "sign across the flap" sealed letters in some other circumstance, letters of recommendation for U.S. graduate programs are almost always accompanied by a confidentiality waiver form, signed by the student, pledging that the student will not read the letter — that is, if the student checks the box electing to waive their right of inspection, which is theoretically their choice, but practically de rigueur. (You can find many examples of such forms online by searching for "recommendation privacy waiver" or similar phrases, if you want to see what they look like. Here is one random example: note that the checkboxes are very clear about distinguishing the choice of "a confidential letter" or "one that I might read.") Signing such a waiver form very much does constitute a pledge to remain unaware of the contents of the letter. Recommenders who want students to read their letters will provide them, or not mind being asked for, a separate copy.
posted by RogerB at 9:46 AM on January 24, 2011 [2 favorites]


Yeah, I think you're missing the forest for the trees here. Your SO deserved the poor recommendation. The professor may very well think your SO is a delightful person with a wonderful work ethic. Nevertheless, your SO got Cs and Bs in the class, apparently only with intensive extra assistance from the prof. The professor is not "out to get" her -- she merely gave a candid assessment of her abilities in academics. Your SO should be happy for this all-to-rare instance of being able to get an objective view of her abilities. She should focus her work ethic on an arena she'll be successful in, instead of wasting her time on grad school.
posted by yarly at 9:46 AM on January 24, 2011 [11 favorites]


In her shoes, I wouldn't take it to the administration, especially not right now. I would take this professor's class while pretending to know absolutely nothing about the recommendations - as that entire application process is postponed, they're all sitting in a shoebox or thrown out. She should be acting as if everything is fine, while still documenting everything that this professor does which might be showing bias during the class, so that if there starts to be any effect on her grades, she'll have the full story written down. At the same time, she should keep an eye out for classmates who are doing grad school applications and drop a hint that Prof is not to be trusted. Then after the class is over, she can stop hinting and make 100% sure that all the students in the department know not to EVER EVER ask this prof for a recommendation. If there's a student majors organization, bring it up with them. Part of the purpose of departmental orgs and student committees is to mediate complaints.
posted by aimedwander at 9:46 AM on January 24, 2011


At the same time, she should keep an eye out for classmates who are doing grad school applications and drop a hint that Prof is not to be trusted.

This is a really strange thing to recommend. The rule of thumb is: don't ask for an academic recommendation from a professor who gave you a C. This isn't about bias; it's about academic ability. There's absolutely no evidence here that the professor wouldn't give a good recommendation to a student who got As.
posted by yarly at 9:50 AM on January 24, 2011 [5 favorites]


Chiming in to strongly agree with RogerB.

I am a professor who writes sealed recommendations regularly. I wouldn't write a bad one, but I'd think very poorly of a student who opened one I wrote. I never open ones written for me. You just don't do that.
posted by vincele at 9:52 AM on January 24, 2011 [1 favorite]


letters of recommendation for U.S. graduate programs are almost always accompanied by a confidentiality waiver form, signed by the student, pledging that the student will not read the letter

This. And Canada, too.
posted by Beardman at 9:55 AM on January 24, 2011


Former undergrad here, former grad student too, and former professor as well.
Yarly's right.
posted by fivesavagepalms at 10:42 AM on January 24, 2011


The professor is not "out to get" her -- she merely gave a candid assessment of her abilities in academics.

But if that's all the professor were doing, it would have been better to tell the student directly that she couldn't give her a positive recommendation and she didn't think the student was ready or would excel in grad school. To agree to give a recommendation and then not write a positive one is strange and a waste of time for multiple people.

Nevertheless, your SO should take this knowledge and 1) work her ass off in this class and in general to better ready herself for grad school, 2) find a different prof for a recommendation and make sure to ask if it will be a positive letter, and 3) let it go. Going to the administration will only expose her part in the wrongdoing (i.e., opening the letter), and won't likely have any positive outcome. I would trust the professor to grade fairly because it seems she has in the past.
posted by JenMarie at 10:58 AM on January 24, 2011


I just finished applying to grad school, and all of my applications required that I initial that I waived my right to read my recommendations. That said, 2 of 4 recommenders sent me a copy of their letters post-submission for my own records of their own accord. Really nice of them, but definitely not required.

And add me to the list of people who think 1) prof should have refused to write the recommendation but 2) your SO shouldn't have asked this particular prof given his/her academic performance in the prof's classes.

As for dealing with this prof's class next semester, I'd be double-sure to dot my i's and cross my t's in all coursework and communications with the prof. Be extra-circumspect, over-perform in class and consider the satisfaction of wringing an A from such a hard nut.
posted by smirkette at 11:00 AM on January 24, 2011


not just poorly written and addressed to the wrong schools

It's not clear if this is meant as an example of what could be wrong with a recommendation letter, or if it was something wrong with this recommendation letter. "Poorly written and addressed to the wrong schools" is a sign that not much time or thought went into the non-recommendation. If that is so, then this is something to warn other students about. If the only problem was the character of the letter, then there is, as has been said above, no particular reason to think that the professor is also sinking A students.

I'm concerned that, in general, your SO may be getting poor advice on her graduate school applications. She should not have asked this professor for a recommendation. I'm very sorry for her shock, but it sounds like she doesn't understand who she should be turning to for recommendations.

Applying graduate students tend to greatly overestimate the importance of a professor "knowing you", and underestimate the importance of the professor explaining what that A on your transcript really means. This may have been the source of this mistake.

I would suggest your SO talk to one of her other letter-writers, one who wrote a strong recommendation which she was openly allowed to read. She should refrain from letting on about her faux pas, but she should suggest that she'd asked for a rec from Prof X. and now thinks that may have been a bad idea, so what should she do for her third (or fourth) letter going forward?
posted by endless_forms at 11:26 AM on January 24, 2011 [2 favorites]


Post some anonymous reviews where possible online (ratemyprofessors.com, etc.) without leaving identifying details, share this information with everyone you know, and consider yourself fortunate to have learned a valuable lesson without overly harsh consequences.
posted by Behemoth at 11:28 AM on January 24, 2011


First, unethical it may be, but I -- like a lot of people -- would have opened that sealed letter too. I don't think it's particularly bad, in part because I think the sealed recommendation letter is problematic. I think the professor did a way worse thing, frankly, by agreeing to write a letter and then writting a negative one instead of refusing to write a letter/saying it would not be that positive and possibly also by not mentioning to your SO that she should reconsider her grad school plans. It's also somewhat worrisome that they were addressed to the wrong schools.

Take the class, work hard, ask someone else for the recommendation, and if this prof brings it up, say what phearlez suggested. The professor was a jerk, but there is nothing useful to do about it, except learn that if you have taken several classes with one prof and never gotten an A, perhaps this is a bad person to ask for a reference.
posted by jeather at 11:36 AM on January 24, 2011


Wait a few years, become successful, then write to the department head to express your disappointment in her lack of professionalism. "it came to my attention that she wrote a bad review"...but wait a few years and become successful first.
posted by vitabellosi at 12:20 PM on January 24, 2011 [1 favorite]




I would take this professor's class while pretending to know absolutely nothing about the recommendations - as that entire application process is postponed, they're all sitting in a shoebox or thrown out.

Murphy's Law demands that - if this assertion is made - that your SO will then be asked that the sealed letter be returned.

Put it in the shredder. Then, if this person who can influence other potential sources of recommendations and who is responsible for grading your SO's assignments asks about the letter your SO can say honestly "I put it in the shredder." Practice answering "of course not" is asked point-blank if it was opened and read.
posted by phearlez at 1:44 PM on January 24, 2011


Regarding the letter: ceremonially burn it, then drink a libation of your choice and resolve not to think of it again. There is no good in bringing it to anyone's attention, as you want to continue in this field it can only reflect poorly on you to bring it up. As an undergrad, perhaps the most valuable advice I wish I'd received is that most scientific fields are very small and inbred. Everyone knows everyone, gossips about everyone, and depends on collaboration/assistance to succeed.

At the beginning of the next class: Thank her again for her letter of reference in a warm, friendly way, doing your best to think of the effort she expended in writing the letter (not insubstantial) while you say it. Tell her how much it means to you that she wrote you a letter of reference (if you feel like it) and that you are even more committed to working hard to apply the lessons you learned in previous courses to the current class with her.

Then, work your ass off. Let her see how much succeeding in your field means to you. And then graduate. And assume that in a handful of years, you will probably be working with this woman in some way again, and it is best to preserve cordial working relationships.

Additional unsolicited advice: anyone who's getting Bs and Cs in undergraduate classes should probably not even be considering graduate school in that discipline.

Strongly disagree. I think that grad school (and your success therein) is dependent on a number of factors. In my program, the most successful students are not necessarily the ones that did very well in undergrad. However, in my experience the ones who struggle the most often go straight from undergrad to grad school, so there may be a lesson there as well.

Another way to strengthen an application that is otherwise lackluster: get some real world experience. So, you're a biologist (for example)? And your grades aren't great, but you can't imagine wanting to do anything other than study biology? Start applying for lab work, particularly at schools where you would like to be a graduate student. This is a very common and amazingly easy way to get a foot in the door at my (fairly prestigious) school, at least 10-15% of last year's incoming class had worked at the school in some guise in the past. Often they stay with the same labs they had worked in, just as grad students rather than lab assistants/researchers/what have you.
posted by arnicae at 1:45 PM on January 24, 2011 [1 favorite]


Not to join this pile on, but I truly believe that while your SO should not have read the letter, she should have thought twice about asking for a recommendation from a professor in whose class she had had so much trouble. Now that she's realized this, she needs to work around that. So she can't rely on that specific prof for a recommendation, and it's good that she now knows that. She can move on, take the classes, do her best, and get recommendations from someone else.

She has to be cordial to this professor, to be sure, because they are still responsible for grading her - but your SO should bury her head and work, no matter what. She can't do anything but take the class and do her best at this point - confrontation isn't something I'd risk in her situation.

Also - send her to a student center on campus where she can get advice about graduate applications. This can come in terms of figuring out which professors to ask for recommendations to how to ask for recommendations to prevent these kinds of things from happening again.
posted by SNWidget at 2:36 PM on January 24, 2011


Like my mom always said, living well is the best revenge. Your SO should do whatever she can to NAIL this class with as little help from the professor as possible.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 3:49 PM on January 24, 2011 [1 favorite]


Letters addressed to the wrong schools-- this happens all the time. Many if not most of these letters are genuinely enthusiastic about the applicants. That's not a big deal for me or my colleagues, and it's no secret that applicants apply to a lot of schools.

Since that's a sore point for you, I want to gently suggest that you and your SO might not be the best judges of how the letter is read by a committee member.

While it was perhaps wrong of her to say less than stellar things about your SO, it is hard say how truly uncomplimentary the letter was since we don't have the letter before us. From the grades, I wouldn't expect the letter to read like one for a straight-A student.

I'm not ready to criticize the professor for writing for you, because we don't know why you asked her or why she agreed to do it. (Pressure from you or colleagues, small department, departmental policy or politics beyond her control, relationship between your university and the ones your applying to, etc...). There's zero reason to think she is out to get you.

So I agree you should throw out the letter and try to put the whole business out of your mind as soon as possible.
posted by vincele at 5:13 PM on January 24, 2011


I agree, as a professor, that the professor should have clarified that the letter might not be strong. However, the professor has an obligation to also provide an honest assessment. When I write letters of recommendation they are often read by my friends and colleagues. People I know personally. And my long-term reputation is on the line with regards to the information I provide. When I write letters, whether they are glowing or so-so, I spend a tremendous amount of time making sure they are precise and accurate. Where you see listing your SOs scores as petty, I see them as evidence the professor was looking through the gradebook thinking about what to say and providing something more than an opinion.

As for the worry that the professor is "out to get them." Yes it is possible, but it is more likely that your SO is (understandably) over-personalizing. In any given year I have students who do well and students who do poorly. I have students who I think can go to grad school if they are interested and I have students that express a desire to go to grad school that I think are not well suited. In this case I think your SOs professor is simply of the opinion that your SO is not grad school materials. As much as it may hurt your SO there is likely no malice or belligerence on the part of your professor, simply an opinion.
posted by Tallguy at 5:52 PM on January 24, 2011 [3 favorites]


Yarly has it.

Some of you are crazy litigious. This person has no grievance. She asked for a letter and she got one. She shouldn't have asked. And reading that letter was a serious breach of basic academic ethics that would shameful if known.

If you don't know better than not to read a sealed letter of recommendation someone gave to you to send with an application (this is one reason I won't do this, no matter what they say the app requires; I will only send letters directly) then you don't belong in an academic career.
posted by spitbull at 6:46 PM on January 24, 2011 [1 favorite]


Also, who the heck gives someone an unsealed letter of recommendation? That letter is no more useful than a bad letter, if it was written with the assumption that the subject would read it, let me assure you. Those letters would have "sunk" her too.

As someone who reads these letters year in and year out, I value an honest and detailed letter. Such a letter cannot be written without the expectation of confidentiality.
posted by spitbull at 6:50 PM on January 24, 2011


Also, who the heck gives someone an unsealed letter of recommendation? That letter is no more useful than a bad letter, if it was written with the assumption that the subject would read it, let me assure you.

This is pretty common, actually. How would you even know that someone got an unsealed letter before you received it? It's just as easy for the candidate to seal it themselves and send it along.
posted by ch1x0r at 7:21 PM on January 24, 2011


Side note: while it is unfortunate that your S.O. received such a poor letter of rec, one should always ask if the professor is able to write a strong letter.
posted by 200burritos at 7:51 PM on January 24, 2011


How would you even know that someone got an unsealed letter before you received it? It's just as easy for the candidate to seal it themselves and send it along.

Any letter for me which I handled, rather than having it sent directly, was signed across the sealed flap by the writer, as per the directions of the graduate school. All of the schools with self-managed applications requested this.
posted by endless_forms at 8:19 PM on January 24, 2011 [1 favorite]


Yes, endless_forms (eponysterical in this thread) is correct. An academic letter of rec for a grad program or a fellowship or grant is *always* going to have a protocol for ensuring confidentiality. I have written about 200 rec letters this Fall. Only one required me to give the recipient the letter, sealed, to submit with an application (this was for a graduate fellowship). I declined and sent it directly anyway. The vast majority now entail online submission anyway.
posted by spitbull at 9:26 AM on January 25, 2011


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