To Whom It May Concern: How reviewing letters of recommendation shaped my opinion on who to ask

The best recommendations come from those who know you well, like a GSI

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.

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  1. This article addresses an ongoing concern of mine: As a GSI, I know that I can write a much stronger letter for the students that I interact with 6 hours a week in a small classroom … but will a very general letter from a hot shot professor ultimately be more valuable than one (albeit more personal) letter from a no-name graduate student? Am I doing my students a favor for spending the time to write a good letter, or am I doing them a diservice by not pushing them towards the professor instead?

    Thanks, Kristina, for the article!

  2. Jean

    Gee really? Thanks for the novel insights. Not like you had to worry about scrambling for recommendations to get into grad school though. Just saying.

  3. Jean

    Oh, and thanks for all the choice GRE words in your article. Impressive.

  4. Tim

    Better yet, why not skip the hassle of getting recommendations and getting into grad school elsewhere? Forget building “rapport” with profs just for recommendations. Heck, why not just take that “rapport” all the way into his/her lab at Cal as a grad student? I wonder why more people don’t do this? Hmmmmmmmmmmm

  5. Kristina

    @Erin: I think the co-signing route that Berkeley professors and students have adapted is an effective “middle-ground” that satisfies the potential need for schools to receive a letter from faculty as well as providing additional detailed information addressing character traits that you have witnessed as a result of spending 6 hours of lab/discussion a week with the student.

    @Jean: Along with my fellow peers, I did scramble, even though I would like to play it cool. The fact some places ask for 3-4 letters of high caliber from professors that are surely writing multiple letters in addition to satisfying teaching/research requirements…is overwhelming, to say the least. My goal for this article was to communicate my experience reading letters and potentially alleviate the stress of confronting a professor. Allow me to emphasize that the program to which you are applying may have different expectations. I feared desuetude of GRE words would lead to my forgetting, for it was not my intention to coruscate an otherwise mellifluous article (good times…).

    @Tim: Several students may anticipate taking a similar route. If students enjoy their research topic, I highly recommend asking their professors if they know any other labs within the field that may be looking for graduate students. Delve into the primary literature to better familiarize yourself with the laboratory of interest, perhaps establish a collaboration. This extends far beyond asking for a letter of rec. Ideally, students will establish positive working relationships without the LOR being the driving force. If you really love science, talk to the people who know it best.