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Recommendations - What schools really want to hear is....

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Hi guys,

what is the admission committee looking for in LOR? I'm talking specifically about LORs for PhD engineering programs.

What makes a LOR outstanding: the more laud the better? - that's what every letter is about.

The recommender's name?

I read many LOR guide-books.

Looking forward to hear your opinion, especially when you got already into a top school!


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Here's my opinion! The best LORs are those written from someone who has supervised your research work and can talk about your research ability. Sometimes LORs for physical sciences are partly a form that the prof fills out, with some free space for writing whatever they want. In the form section, the prof rates you on several skills such as "communication", "work ethic", "research potential", "ability to do independent work", "academic achievement" etc. You are not rated on a 1-5 scale though, the prof usually ticks off a box that could have options like "Top 1%" "Top 2%" "Top 5%", "Top 10%", "Top 50%" OR "best student of this year", "best student of this decade", "best student I've ever met", etc.

Basically, you want a LOR that will COMPARE you favourably to other students. Committees do not seem to be interested in statements like "Student X has a strong GPA" -- they can see this on the transcript and almost everyone will have good GPAs. They want to hear statements like "Student X is ranked 3rd out of 200 students in his class at School A".

Next, the reputation of the professor and the school is important. Clearly, even if a famous prof ranks you at only top 10%, it's better than an unknown person (or new person) saying you are in the top 5% or something. In addition, you should consider the reputation of the LOR writer in terms of the school you are applying to. If you are applying to someone's alma mater, especially if you are applying to their former colleague, advisor, or someone they went to grad school with! Or, if there are students formerly at your school who ended up going to the new school, your LOR could contain statements that compare you to these already accepted students -- obviously you want to make sure there are favourable comparisons.

It's hard to know all the connections between profs and schools, so I just simply asked my potential LOR writers. I had 3 LORs from research work and for some schools, I sent an extra LOR from a prof here that has taught many of my core courses and knows my ability well. I sent a list of schools I was applying to and asked that 4th prof to let me know if he thought a letter from him would help me. It turns out that he was personal friends (went to grad school with) people at one of the schools and had sent his former students to another. I wouldn't have known these things without asking!

Finally, you should always ask the person if they want to write you a LOR with enough time to find another person if they don't want to do it. Some people will ask outright whether or not they will write a strong LOR, but if you ask them if they think/want to write one for you, then it's less direct. Usually most profs will let you know at this point if they don't think they can write you a strong LOR -- if so, it's probably best to find someone else if possible!

So the three key ideas are that:

1. You want your LORs to come from people you've worked with in research. Coursework LORs are sometimes necessary though since it's hard to get 3 research supervisors by the time you apply.

2. Every good student will have the necessary skills of a graduate student. Strong LORs will compare you favourably amongst your peers, and make you stand out.

3. An LOR from someone that the committee knows will be stronger than an endorsement from someone they don't know.

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I agree with all that TakeruK posted - very good.

I would add that an LOR from a professor who really knows you well as a person - as well as a student shines through in letters. Think of how you would be affected by reading a letter - you can tell a genuine recommendation from a fro forma response. They want a letter that is written about YOU and also relates your ability to do original work, at their school.

Too few students IMO really try to establish a rapport with professors until it's too late - then we see posts on Grad Cafe that say "Help - I need LORs and none of my professors know me"...

Personally, I think the "well known" professor LOR think is over-rated. I had really strong recommendations and (as I have been told) partly because their letters were in-depth, heart-felt and personal as well as an assessment of my ability to succeed in the program.

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