In Berkeley, it’s not just summertime. It’s also application season, and across campus beads of sweat are forming on the brows of Cal students. Who, they wonder, will they be asking for letters of recommendation?
One of the most common dilemmas arises in large lecture courses. As a former Berkeley undergraduate myself, I can sympathize for students in courses with almost 300 students who face the ineluctable fate of requesting letters from their professors or graduate student instructors. The first question many undergraduates have asked me regards this very dilemma: do I ask the graduate student instructor who knows me as 1 out of 30 students, or the professor who barely recognizes me?
There are several factors to take into consideration, and the best answer to this question varies from student to student. If you were the type to ensconce yourself during lecture and avoided (or had class conflicts) during your professor’s office hours, then chances are if you ask this professor, he/she will either (a) confess to not knowing you and advise you to ask someone else or (b) will insouciantly send out their skeleton letter and fill in your name in the blank spots. If you are still irresolute on to whom you present the honor of writing a letter about how suitable you are for your program of interest, I suggest you cajole someone who knows you well. It’s perfectly acceptable, perhaps even advisable, to ask your letter-writing candidates if they feel comfortable with their level of knowledge about you to write a letter.
I have been bestowed with the honor of reviewing applicants that, among their application materials, include letters of recommendation. To my pleasant surprise, there seems to be a baseline of positive characteristics that many (if not all) applicants exhibit. Eagerness to learn, independence, and inquisitiveness are all common traits of Berkeley students. But if everyone has them, how can your letter be expected to play its role in making you stand out amongst the pile? This subsidiary detail further illustrates the importance of having a letter writer who knows you by more than your fine countenance. While the status of the letter writer is something that (rumor has it) strongly influences the weight of your letter, I opine that the person in our gesellschaft of academia with whom you have the strongest rapport, regardless of the extent of his/her academic achievement, is the ideal letter writer.
Needless to say, there are bound to be those who vehemently disagree. Prestigious schools and programs would expect nothing less that a prestigious letter writer. Realistically, though, the chance that the person reviewing your application knows your professor is slim. I maintain that the quality of the letter surpasses the “quality” of the letter writer. If your graduate student instructor knows you better, so be it.**
**As for the GSIs who believe this pernicious article will lead to undergraduates accreting at their office door, I apologize.