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selecting a 3rd LOR writer


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Hi, I am deciding between two profs to ask for a letter of recommendation for PhD programs in art history and I am looking for advice on who would be the best. I think both could write a good letter, and the one I don't choose will be a back up.

For context, the other two profs I plan to ask: Prof A was my undergrad thesis advisor, and I took several classes with her that included substantial research projects. She will be able to speak to my research, writing, and performance in classes, I have known her for about 3 years, and have spent plenty of time in her office. I'm confident she'd be happy to (I've discussed my plans for grad school with her and she has written for me in the past) and would write a strong letter. Also she specializes in the area I am interested in going into so she will be able to talk most specifically about my preparation for that subfield.

Prof. B who will also ask was my undergrad academic and major advisor. I spent a summer conducting research with her and co-curating a show. I also took one of her classes. I've known her for four years and spend a lot of time with her. She has also written for me in the past and I believe would be more than happy to write me a strong letter. She will be able to talk about my performance since the beginning of college and also about my research ability and ability to carry out a long project. She was the 2nd reader (but not very involved) of my undergrad thesis so she's read that too. 

Ok--here are the two I am having trouble deciding between for the third letter (both are art historians): 

Option #1: I've taken two classes with this Prof. One was an intro level several years ago where I don't think I necessarily stood out but she knew who I was (received an A-, perfect score on the final exam, went to office hours). I got to know her better my senior year, when she led my senior seminar (received an A, went to office hours, etc). She pulled me aside to tell me that she thinks I would do really well in grad school and should consider it. She also read my final thesis (which she really liked) and was on my thesis defense for honors (which I received). She would be able to write about my ability to succeed in grad school after leading me in an art history seminar which is supposed to be more like grad-level and reading my thesis.

Option #2: I have also taken 2 classes with this Prof, one larger and more lecture-heavy course where I did well (A in the class), went to office hours, but didn't get to know the prof. super well in that setting. The second class I took with him, I got to know him better and participated in events outside of but related to the class. The second class was more experimental, was co-taught, and had a research component. Since it was an experimental class I don't know that he really got a sense of my ability to conduct academic research. Would have nice things to say about me, but mostly about my personality, dedication to my school work, interest in art history, willingness to try new things, etc. but not necessarily closely related to the type of work I would do in grad school. Has written for me before and said he would always be happy to write on my behalf. 

I am leaning toward Option 1 just because she has read my thesis and would probably feel more comfortable writing about my ability to conduct research in that area, but I am not sure if that would just be more of the same with all 3 readers having served on my thesis defense and if I should pick another prof (option 2) who arguably knows me a little better personally and in a classroom setting. I don't think I can necessarily go wrong so just looking for some second opinions. Thanks!!

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What can option 2 say about you that isn't covered by option 1, who knows your research and taught you in a class that was just as personal if not more so?

Another point: how do their areas of interest compare? If A, B, and 2 are all specialists in contemporary French art, which is what you do, and 1 studies ancient Sumeria, that might be a point in favor of 2.

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Consider this: as gross as it is, some faculty on the admissions committee may also care who the professor is in the field, their pedigree, publishing, etc. All things being equal, choose the person you think is the bigger name. If it's junior faculty versus senior faculty, choose the latter, unless it's someone so senior that their work is no longer current in the field.

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  • 4 weeks later...

I have to disagree with what cleisthenes writes on this point. Even though it's true that readers will look at the name/stature/reputation of the writers, I can assure you that a strong, detailed, substantive letter from a junior professor will carry more weight than a thin, disengaged letter from a senior person. Go with the person who knows you best and with whom you have the strongest relationship. I personally would rather read a letter from Prof. 1, who can speak specifically to your strengths as a researcher and writer, than from Prof. 2. Keep in mind that every single applicant has letters that stress their great work ethic, dedication, enthusiasm, etc. Give the committee something memorable and specific to read, that will make you stand out.

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