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Choice of recommenders - who to go for? Help Please!


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I'm having a little bit of trouble deciding which of my professors to go with as recommenders.

I have 5 possible people who I'm pretty sure would give me good letters, but my situation is complicated by the fact that I'm trying to second guess how effusive they're going to be - I'm from the U.K. and I'm worried about the difference between what is considered "great praise" here, and what Adcomms will expect to see from LORs in the States.

I'm definitely going to have my MA thesis supervisor as one reference. Then, I get to the possibilities:

I have two more professors who have offered without being asked - which is very nice. One is a European modernisms specialist... tangentialy related to my interests, who did Comp Lit at one of the places I'm applying to - so she's a definite for that app and for the other Comp Lit apps I think. The other professor is the one I'm really debating on: he's probably more well known than the others, has done a lot of Cultural Studies type work - which is more my area, and will likely write a very enthusiastic letter, since he specifically said so to me - however, he's completely computer illiterate and never answers email which makes me worry that he is going to prove unreliable come submission time. Also... he's the professor I like the least, and I worry that he doesn't know me at all well...I took two MA modules with him, but I always get the feeling he doesn't remember my name (I'm perhaps being unfair to him, since he offered to give me a reference unsolicited he must actually know who I am.... but he just gives off a slightly flaky impression).

Then, I have the Director of my MA program, who I respect intellectually a great deal, he's fairly gruff though and has taught me for less classes than the others.

I also want to ask my undergraduate tutor, who knows me extremely well - he was practically my only teacher for three years - I went to a very good university for undergrad, so I think including him could be a bonus in that sense also. However: he's a Victorianist/ Fin de Siecle specialist, I'm Contemporary; he is NOT into the highly theoretical approach that I have ended up taking and he's very, very terse - I worry that what he thinks is high praise will be read as faint damnation by the adcomms...

Anyone have any advice about who would be the best choice/ what combo of the above would give the best impression, please?

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I think you should consider who knows your work best and also whose work is best known in the field you are pursuing. Having too many people wanting to write letters for you is not a bad problem to have:) Since most places require 3 letters, maybe you can identify who would write your strongest letter and have that person write to all your applying schools and then alternate the other profs (who would write strong letters) to the other schools your'e applying to?

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The "standard of praise" issue is something many European applicants face. I think it's common enough that professors who have been writing letters for many years must be aware of it; veteran adcom members will also be aware that professors from different cultures use varying amounts of praise in their letters.

If your letter writers are experienced professors, they will have written letters for American grad schools before. Try to learn more about their placement record: if their students are have routinely been accepted to top universities in previous years that means that these universities have learned to value the professors' word, regardless of how much praise the letters contained.

If you have a close relationship with these professors, try telling them about your concerns. That's what I did with several of my professors, who told me they could write "American style". I had one recommender who told me it was the first time he was writing a letter for an American school; I gave him a copy of the recommender instruction sheet from Donald Asher's Graduate Admissions Essays (after he consented to getting the instructions, of course!), which talks a bit about how a letter should look and mentions the praise issue.

From the description in your post it was hard to tell who would be your best options. Your recommenders should be the professors who are most familiar with your work as a researcher, not necessarily the ones you've taken the most classes with. You don't want a "did well in class" letter, you want a letter that can discuss the specifics of your work and highlight your promise as a scholar and researcher. It sounded like the first two professors you mention are the ones who know your research ability and current work the best. It wasn't clear to me what kind of information your MA program director can contribute. As for your undergraduate tutor, you should get a letter from his only if he already has a PhD (otherwise he can't really be trusted to know if you can complete that training) and if he can speak about your research ability and passion.

If you are concerned about one of the professors flaking (and generally, as good practice), consider having either a fourth letter or a standby. Some schools have strict policies about the number of letters they accept, but many will allow you to submit more letters than required. Check the department websites for instructions or contact them directly to ask. You should obviously only submit an extra letter if it is a strong one, and really supports your application. Lastly, I'd suggest you offer the computer illiterate professor technical support when the time comes to upload his letters (he can write them in word, or however he writes his other work, so he can do most of the work himself in advance and then you'll only need to spend one afternoon helping him to access the recommender section of your applications and upload the file).

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The "standard of praise" issue is something many European applicants face. I think it's common enough that professors who have been writing letters for many years must be aware of it; veteran adcom members will also be aware that professors from different cultures use varying amounts of praise in their letters.

If your letter writers are experienced professors, they will have written letters for American grad schools before. Try to learn more about their placement record: if their students are have routinely been accepted to top universities in previous years that means that these universities have learned to value the professors' word, regardless of how much praise the letters contained.

If you have a close relationship with these professors, try telling them about your concerns. That's what I did with several of my professors, who told me they could write "American style". I had one recommender who told me it was the first time he was writing a letter for an American school; I gave him a copy of the recommender instruction sheet from Donald Asher's Graduate Admissions Essays (after he consented to getting the instructions, of course!), which talks a bit about how a letter should look and mentions the praise issue.

From the description in your post it was hard to tell who would be your best options. Your recommenders should be the professors who are most familiar with your work as a researcher, not necessarily the ones you've taken the most classes with. You don't want a "did well in class" letter, you want a letter that can discuss the specifics of your work and highlight your promise as a scholar and researcher. It sounded like the first two professors you mention are the ones who know your research ability and current work the best. It wasn't clear to me what kind of information your MA program director can contribute. As for your undergraduate tutor, you should get a letter from his only if he already has a PhD (otherwise he can't really be trusted to know if you can complete that training) and if he can speak about your research ability and passion.

If you are concerned about one of the professors flaking (and generally, as good practice), consider having either a fourth letter or a standby. Some schools have strict policies about the number of letters they accept, but many will allow you to submit more letters than required. Check the department websites for instructions or contact them directly to ask. You should obviously only submit an extra letter if it is a strong one, and really supports your application. Lastly, I'd suggest you offer the computer illiterate professor technical support when the time comes to upload his letters (he can write them in word, or however he writes his other work, so he can do most of the work himself in advance and then you'll only need to spend one afternoon helping him to access the recommender section of your applications and upload the file).

Thank you for the clear and helpful advice!

I think perhaps I should have been clearer about the experience each professor has of my work: each of my MA professors has taught me for a seminar class which had a 20 page research paper as its method of assessment. My thesis supervisor obviously has further knowledge of my research abilities.

My undergraduate professor is indeed a PhD (is actually a 60 year old Oxford don), I wrote him 1 or 2 fifteen page self-set papers every week for three years as an undergrad, so he has an excellent grasp of my writing and my ability to research under pressure and time constraints, the only thing is that my interests have developed a great deal over the course of my MA so he perhaps won't be able to be enormously specific in praising my suitability as a researcher within my exact field.

I will try and investigate each professor's "placement record" as you have suggested, this is a great idea - I'm not sure how easy that will be here... grad school applications seem to be a far more transparent process in the U.S. I also doubt very much that any of my recommenders will have sent students to schools in the States. I know most of my undergrad tutor's recent past students and many have gone on to graduate work at the top universities in the U.K. (with many switching disciplines strangely) but none, that I know of, that have gone abroad; my thesis supervisor has also sent people to the U.K.'s top universities but, again, I haven't heard of anyone going overseas.

I'm ordering the Donald Asher book as I write this, and I will definitely follow your lead and discuss the style of praise issue with my professors. - I'm not sure why I didn't already think of doing so mellow.gif

Edited by vallensvelvet
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  • 2 years later...

Why not all?? I always recommend 4 or 5 LOR, especially if you can taylor them to varying strengths. I obtained stacks of additional signed and sealed LORs and mailed them directly to the program to be included in my application. Most people have a hard time finding 3 LORs, let alone 3 good ones.  Having 5 (assuming they are solid) will speak volumes.

Edited by uromastyx
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