To Whom It May Concern

I am writing this letter in support of J. Randomstudent's application to your graduate or professional program. I have known J. since the fall of 20__, when he was a student in my introductory physics class.

From the very first day of that course, J. was a constant presence on my grade roster. I assume he came to class as well, as I have quiz and homework grades for him, though I do not have any specific recollection of him participating in class.

I have had many "B" students in my years as a professor, but I do not think it is an exaggeration to say that J. Randomstudent was the most emphatic "B" I have had in my career. Many "B" students will alternate between "A" and "C" work over the course of the semester, but J. was the very model of consistency. Every test, every paper, every assignment was completed in full with 80% effort, and received a "B" grade. He has also demonstrated competence at experimental science, as shown by the six "B" grades he received in the laboratory portion of the course.

On a personal level, I am sure that J. gets along all right with other students, as I do not remember him causing any trouble either in class or as part of his lab group. I have spoken with him on at least one occasion, when he came to my office to ask me to write this letter, and he seemed like a perfectly nice person.

In conclusion, then, I am writing this letter as a reference for J. Randomstudent. Should you choose to admit him to your graduate or professional program, I'm sure he'll do just fine.

Thanks for your time,

Chad Orzel

Associate Professor of Physics

We're entering Recommendation Season, that time of year when students considering graduate school seek out faculty members to write letters of recommendation to go with their applications, both for graduate school and for fellowships and awards. It hits a little earlier here, as today is the last day of finals for the Fall term, and classes won't resume until January, so students need to request letters now for deadlines in early January, but in the next month or two, faculty all over the nation will be struggling to find ways to put off writing reference letters for students in their classes.

I've gotten three requests already, and I'm happy to say that none of them will give me any trouble at all, as far as the content goes. I'm a reflexive procrastinator, so I'll still put them off, but all three are students I know well, and I'm more than happy to give them enthusiastic recommendations.

If you're a student thinking about graduate school, though, consider this post a friendly reminder: Don't be J. Randomstudent. You don't need to run an A+ average in every class-- God knows, I didn't when I was a student-- but you do need to do something to stand out. These letters ask faculty to comment on the academic ability, research potential, and personal qualities of the candidates, so it's imperative that you have faculty members who can comment on those things (primarily the first two).

You don't have to suck up to every faculty member you meet, but make sure that there are at least a few professors who know you well. A colleague in the social sciences said once that he tells students to make sure that they get to know at least one of their professors each term, which will give them 10-12 potential recommenders by the time senior year rolls around.

What do you need to do to get good letters? Make sure that you give your best effort in classes in your major. Participate in class discussions. Go to office hours and ask questions if you have them. Take advantage of any undergraduate research opportunities that come your way, and if you get taken on to a research project, treat it as a real job, not some summer lark: show up on time, do your work to the best of your ability, and try to show a little initiative.

Getting good grades helps, but it's not enough. I've given A's to students that I couldn't begin to write a good letter for-- they were quiet in class, did their work, got their good grades, and went away without a word. I've given B+'s to students that I could write great letters for, because they asked and answered questions in class, came to office hours to get help, and gave me a solid idea of their strengths and weaknesses. I can write a letter for a student like that more easily than I can for a student who coasted through the class on native ability, and didn't make much of an impression beyond that.

If you'e a superstar A+ student, of course, the letters aren't going to make a huge difference in your chances of getting into grad school. Of course, if you're that sort of student, you're probably not reading this blog... If you're below that top few percent, though, the letters do make a difference, so make sure you make a positive impression on at least a few of your professors, at some point in your career.

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I've always wondered whether grades really matter that much for graduate school admissions. I'm assuming that the emphasis changes a great deal from department to department, but it always seemed like the letters of recommendation were a much bigger deal than the grades, in general, since most students applying are probably in the 3.x range.

I have actually been grubbing for rec letters over the past couple of weeks, for both grad school and scholarships, and I got a big kick out of your letter for Randomstudent. ;) I can't figure out why someone would ask a professor for a letter if they didn't have some kind of special reason the prof would know them....my top reference pick is a professor that I haven't actually had a class from, but that I've done extensive field research with. Even in classes where I know I had a top average and got along with the professor very well, I wouldn't feel right asking for a rec without some other attribute as well....they see a lot of A students, doesn't seem so special to me, and I'd never dream of asking a prof for a letter if I got a B in their class unless they had some other stellar something they could say about me...but maybe that's just me.

Anyway, thanks for this post, I've been slaving over it from the student side and it's always great to read opinions and advice from a faculty person as well!

When I read well intended advice such as this I can't help but think that it boils down to this: act as though you actually were passionate about physics. Afterall, wouldn't a student whose interests in physics extended beyond the textbook and grades naturally do the things you advise? But I guess this goes for all resume-padding.

In any event, your recommendation for J. was pretty funny.

When I was an undergrad I took some classes from a math professor, and did well in them, but didn't know him well. I took a graduate class from him one year, and he told me "if you ever need a recommendation letter, I'd be happy to write you one." The next year I went and asked him for a recommendation letter. The reply: "I'm sorry: who are you?"

(I told him about the classes I took from him, and that he had said he would write me a letter, at which point he claimed to remember me. I never believed him.)

The relative weight of grades, tests and letters varies from department to department, even in the same field. So, I would enthusiastically endorse Chad's advice. You never know if that letter will make the difference for you.

Locally, I know of a couple of grads who are in our department in large part from their letters. Doing good work with a well known professor can go a long way.

By Brad Holden (not verified) on 20 Nov 2007 #permalink

Back in grad school, some of my colleagues were shanghaied into serving on the admissions committee, and their comments were always very disillusioning.

Typically, there are hundreds of applicants for dozens of spots. The GRE scores, letters of reference, and transcripts let you trim that a bit, identifying the real stars and outright losers. But when all is said and done, you are still left with a good hundred applicants, all of whom maxed out the GRE (or close), went to top schools (or close), got straight-A averages (or close), and have enthusiastic (or positive) reference letters. But there's only a couple dozen spots left, so you pretty much have to flip coins.

The existing system of grad school applications does a decent job of identifying bad and great applicants, but it really doesn't have enough resolution in the crucial range from pretty-good to really-good.

By Johan Larson (not verified) on 20 Nov 2007 #permalink

"It hits a little earlier here, as today is the last day of finals for the Fall term, and classes won't resume until January[.]"

Are you serious? Your Fall term ends before Thanksgiving?

This year I had a student ask me for a letter of recommendation to a school with a famous aeronautical engineering program. His grade in my calculus class? An F.

I don't think he's going to be admitted.