How Grad School Applicants Can Deal With Negative Recommendation Letters

Receiving such a letter doesn’t necessarily mean the end of your admissions chances.

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By being strategic, you can avoid a critical recommendation letter altogether, or do damage control after the fact.
By being strategic, you can avoid a critical recommendation letter altogether, or do damage control after the fact.

When graduate school admissions officials receive a less than flattering letter of recommendation about an applicant, they usually will come away with a negative impression of the prospective student. They assume that grad school candidates will choose recommenders who are ready to highlight their achievements and demonstrate why the school should offer admission to the applicant.

When the opposite happens, that can be a major red flag. But if it happens to you, all hope is not lost.

There are a few ways that applicants may learn that a negative letter has been submitted about them. If they do not waive the right to see what their recommenders submitted, applicants can access the recommendation directly.

Even if they have waived their ability to see the letter, applicants may learn—either intentionally or accidentally—from the recommender or from a mutual friend about the nature of the letter. Or, if the applicant is placed on a wait list, she or he might get feedback from the school about the negative letter.

The negative recommendation is concerning, but you can provide the admissions director and officials with more information about you based on the way you handle the situation. In some cases, applicants who initially receive a negative recommendation but who handle the situation well are eventually admitted.

[Read about how MBA letters of recommendation can be a "blind spot."]

If you learn that one of your recommenders was less than positive about your candidacy, the first thing you should do is calm down. You will obviously be upset, may experience strong feelings of anger or betrayal, and might even want to confront the individual. The bottom line is that you need to be completely calm and professional before you take steps to rectify the situation with the admissions office.

Once you are ready to move forward, contact two additional individuals who know you well (one could be a close friend) and ask them to write letters. Make sure to confirm that they will present a mostly impressive picture of you. If you have an idea of what the criticism was that was leveled against you in the problematic recommendation, ask the new recommenders to address that issue in particular, providing a more positive evaluation of you in that area.

Once you have the additional recommenders lined up, call the admissions office and ask to speak with the director or an associate or assistant director. It is important that you indicate to the person who initially takes your call that the nature of your call is urgent and confidential.

[Avoid five mistakes when requesting law school recommendations.]

When you reach the admissions official, let him or her know about the situation and then tell him or her that you have two other individuals lined up who are willing to write letters for you. Ask if you may have the additional letters sent within the next week.

If you are given permission to send new letters—which will likely happen in most cases—ask your recommenders to send in their letters as soon as possible and to send you confirmation when they have done so. Then send a letter to the admissions official you spoke to via overnight mail informing him or her that the additional information has been provided. You should also provide the names and contact information of the new recommenders in that letter.

Some applicants may wonder whether they should send a letter to the admissions director addressing the negative recommendation. While such a letter will offer background information and context that could help explain what happened, I do not recommend doing this. Even if it's that simple to explain, admissions committee members are liable to wonder why you asked that person to recommend you in the first place.

To ensure that positive information is provided to the admissions committee, make sure to ask your recommenders if they believe they can give you a good recommendation. This is a perfectly legitimate question.

If they say yes, ask if they need any additional information from you to help with their letters—whether a résumé, a list of recent accomplishments, or something else. By doing this, you will greatly decrease the chances of being unpleasantly surprised after the fact.