Should I File A Complaint Against My Recommendation Letter Writer?

May 06, 2024

Dr. Vicki Johnson, a mid-age white American woman with straight brown hair and a green blouse. She is a graduate school admissions expert. The words, Ask Dr. Johnson are on the left-hand side.

Dear Dr. Johnson,

I asked one of my professors, who I had a great relationship with, to write me a letter of recommendation for graduate school. I made the ask about 2 months in advance of the recommendation letter deadline. They said they would be happy to do it and asked me to send them reminders, which I did. 3 days before the deadline, the letter was still not submitted so I sent an email reminder every day, called their phone and left messages, and tried to find them in-person, but received no reply and couldn’t reach them. They did not submit the recommendation letter and now my application will not be considered. I am so upset given how much work I put into my applications. Should I file a complaint against them or will that cause me harm? What are my options?

– Ghosted


From Dr. Vicki Johnson:

I’m very sorry to hear about this situation. I wish I could say getting ghosted by a professor is very rare, but I hear stories like these every year. Even with the best intentions, preparations, and reminders, we have no control over whether someone else will write and submit a letter of recommendation by a deadline. It’s frustrating and I hear you!

But let’s talk about your next steps and the outcomes these would achieve.

First, I advise that you let the universities know right away that you have been unable to reach your referee and see if there is any possibility the recommendation letter deadline could be extended. The answer may be no, but it is worth asking.

In case you can receive an extension, quickly line up another recommendation letter writer as best you can. If needed, politely contact the university Department the professor worked within to let them know the situation. Do not make the outreach about your complaint; put all your focus on achieving a positive letter from the Department based on your academic performance. Perhaps in this process, you’ll find out why your former professor did not respond.

Now, you could file a formal complaint against the professor with the university, but what do you hope the outcome of this action would be? Even if a complaint could prompt this professor to respond to you and apologize, it certainly won’t inspire them to write a positive letter now or in the future. And a formal complaint may only reflect poorly on you in a system taxed by much more serious offenses.

Also, you still do not know why this person could not be reached in the last 3 days before your deadline. Consider some of the valid reasons they couldn’t be reached such as an illness or death of someone in their family (or even themselves). If you find out this is the reason they could not be reached, would you regret filing a formal complaint?

Take this situation as a lesson to be more prepared in the future. Ask your referees to submit their letters 2 weeks before the deadline, and have 1-2 back-up referees that you can reach out to at the 2 week mark if need be. If you need to ask someone else for a last-minute reference letter, let the original referee know you are doing so and be sure to prep the new referee with a business letter template and key bullet points they can include in the letter.

While you may not be able to fix the big problem of your applications being ineligible this round, if nothing else, you can re-apply with more preparation. Recommendation letters should be detailed and compelling, which is why I always advise graduate school applicants in my Fully Funded Course to prepare folders with key documents that help their referees easily write multiple letters that are tailored to each program. When my students have taken these steps, they often report back about how impressed and appreciative their referees were, a good sign that they wrote exceptional recommendation letters.


Dr. Vicki Johnson is Founder and Director of ProFellow, the world’s leading online resource for professional and academic fellowships. She is a four-time fellow, top Ph.D. scholar, Fulbright recipient, and an award-winning social entrepreneur. She is the creator of the Fully Funded Course and Mentorship Program, which helps graduate school applicants enter top graduate schools with funding awards. 

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