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Thread: What did you do to get stellar letters?

  1. #1
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    What did you do to get stellar letters?

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    Hi guys,
    To those who got into top 10s, would you plz share what you did to get your stellar recommendation letters?

    What is it that makes your letter writer say, dear MIT, attention plz, this is the next Mr.Krugman/Miss.Duflo, take him/her asap?

    Your sharing will help a lot of us out there in the next application cycle!

    More details are always welcome (How you initially approached your supervisor, in what kind of context? classes/projects/thesis/r.a and what makes you stand out?)

    Thanks!
    Peace and blessings for Japan.

  2. #2
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    First I think I benefited coming from LAC, as there is A LOT of opportunities to interact with profs becuz they have nobody else to be busy with!

    I have been with one prof (as RA & TA) since my freshman year, plus a couple of independent studies/research papers/honors thesis. So, that letter from this prof is spectacular!

    Next, I do well in classes, and talk to prof very often, in terms of my goal to go to grad sch, and also potential careers. Profs in my school love to talk to students! (even more so especially when I say I wanna go grad sch)

    However, one downside is that probably profs from LAC are less well known, thus harder to push you into top 10. Also, I think a slightly more unknown LAC will suffer more becuz of branding effect.

    If you are in a top 20 PhD granting universities, I think the best way to get stellar letters is to do well in his/her class, and go to office hours to ask not only questions about courses, but also guidance for grad sch. I think they will be willing to help!

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    An Urch Guru Pundit Swami Sage rthunder27's Avatar
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    Certainly write a thesis, if your undergraduate program gives you the option to do so to graduate with honors. Then the key becomes selecting a good thesis adviser, because this person will certainly become a natural choice to become a LOR writer. There are a lot of different criteria for selecting a good thesis adviser, such as research interests and how much time they're willing to spend on you, but you should also consider how well connected they are to the schools to which you want to apply for a PhD program.
    My Profile and Results Stanford GSB Finance '16

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    I will 'try' and answer, though there is no answer. I was accepted at a good amount of the top 10 and had 1 'famous' letter and 2 letters from known professors. I went to a top 5 UG so I am not sure if this varies, however, all I did was really take an interest first semester and got into research by my second semester. I also lived on campus in the summer and continued to help which showed dedication (even though I had internships 2 of my first 3 summers), offered to help the TAs and professor with grading and such until I was an official TA. Then when it was that time I asked for letters and all three actually showed me the letter and basically asked for my approval. I think once you gain respect they will write great letters for you and basically throw in a line that says 'X is as good as the Y students I have written a recommendation for, and have been accepted, into your program, such as A, B, C, D, and E.' It really helps if someone in A-E is attending. If a professor really likes you and believes in you they may say, 'This is one of the top 3 people I have ever written a recommendation for and 8 of my students have been accepted there.'

    In short, hard work gets you those letters. Being willing to help conduct study sessions, grade, TA, and RA. Writing a thesis is a way to get to know people you may not know and showoff your determination, however, the former ways, IMO, work best.

  5. #5
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    4 out of 4 members found this post helpful. Good post? Yes | No
    I think the answer depends a lot on context, in particular on the tier of school you are coming from, and how frequently your recommender writes letters.

    When you're coming from a higher tier school, and/or your writers are writing letters frequently, they have to take into account their currency and reputation as a writer. I've heard profs described as the type to always oversell candidates, and after awhile this will filter through and admissions committees will somewhat discount their letters. Conversely, a young prof might take the approach of being very demanding or harsh when evaluating a mentee, because they are new to the game and want to preserve their reputation. It's important to remember that when you go on to grad school, and then become faculty, you will either reflect well or poorly on them. So they have a vested personal interest in writing you a LOR that reflects your true quality as best they can.

    So I believe the LOR thing is actually more of a crapshoot than most people realize. Here are two possible scenarios:
    -You work for years for someone as an RA, and do good work that gets positive feedback. But you only do relatively menial RA tasks that they give you, so it doesn't actually reveal much about your quality, except that you're a good worker. Not wanting to bug them, you never approach them to talk about research ideas or a thesis. When it comes time to write you a letter, the letter (despite years of good work on your part) might only be mediocre because your writer is unsure of your true quality (prowess with Stata not being the best metric of research ability).
    -You're the top student of a well-known professor who happens to take on lots of RAs. He tends to oversell them, however (but you don't know this). He writes a glowing letter, but it doesn't have much of an effect, because he doesn't have as much currency as you would think given his stature. He tells you you'll crack the top 5, but then you don't.

    I think the most reliable way to get good letters is to identify, if you can, the professors at your school that tend to take 1-2 undergrads per year under their wing, help them develop, and reliably help them place at top schools. Then work as hard as you can (IMTB provides great suggestions) to impress them. The problem is that there may not be professors in your area of interest at your school that do this. It is possibly worth going for profs outside your area of interest if they seem to be excellent mentors (this never occurred to me as a good approach as an undergrad).

    If the professors in your orbit are unknown quantities in terms of their quality as mentors, or you're not sure where you stand with them, another thing you can do is cast a wide net and develop relationships with a number of professors. When it comes time to ask for letters, really try to get a frank assessment from them of the types of places they think you should apply, and whether the letter they will write you would give you a shot at those places. This is one thing I really wish I had done better (although I tried!). I found out after decisions started arriving that one of my letters was ridiculously stellar, and yet another of my letters was explicitly not top 5 material. I think this partly explains my weird results.

    Finally, in keeping with the idea that writers have an incentive to reflect your true quality in their letters, let them know early that you want to go to grad school, get their advice on what they think you should do to get there, and keep them updated with the results of your actions (like, say, when you get that A in Analysis ). Building up your credentials on the traditional metrics (like math courses) will reduce your expected variance in their eyes, and make it easier for them to write a great letter. I believe at least one of my letters would have been better had the results of my Analysis class been available when I was requesting LORs.

    Finally, disclaimer: All the above is based off my own experience coming from a top tier school; I know it's very different if you're coming from a lower ranked school, and will refrain from giving advice on it since it's outside my realm of experience.
    Last edited by thewhiterabbit; 03-16-2011 at 06:59 PM. Reason: typo

  6. #6
    Within my grasp! fexical's Avatar
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    2 out of 2 members found this post helpful. Good post? Yes | No
    long story short, be a better slave.
    T-stat looks too good... Use robust standard errors... significance gone.
    Keisuke Hirano (on the occasion of completing his thesis.)

  7. #7
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    1 out of 1 members found this post helpful. Good post? Yes | No
    Quote Originally Posted by fexical View Post
    long story short, be a better slave.
    I know you're being cheeky, but I actually think this is usually what *not* to do.

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    Aspiring Workaholic Zeno's Avatar
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    2 out of 2 members found this post helpful. Good post? Yes | No
    I have two less-than-satisfying answers.
    1) Show up, be enthusiastic, do what you can to let the profs get to know you.
    2) Actually be one of the best students they've seen in however long. People on this forum frequently talk about how to get good letters. However, there's no prescribed process after which professors are going to automatically call you the next Roger Myerson. I feel we may want to think of it as how to put our best respective feet forward.

  9. #9
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    These are all very good comments that I enjoyed reading as well. But I have wondered about one thing in regards to doing a thesis: since they are typically not completed until the final year (I don't plan on doing it until my last semester because I have been busy with other research, classes, etc), how does one emphasize it on graduate school applications? My assumption is that one must start the preliminary thesis work, at the latest, the semester they are applying and on their CV will be an abstract for the thesis (like job market papers appear on PhD candidates CVs). Is this true?

  10. #10
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    My main piece of advice, which is I think not enough applicants do, is to go to seminars. Not only are they awesome and fun (and sometimes you'll even get a free lunch!), but you'll learn a lot really fast and it's an excellent way to get to know faculty. At least at my university, very few undergrads go to seminars (I think I'm the only regular), and professors will want to get to know you after you become a regular. This is a great opportunity to signal you're serious about econ research, and you might even get an RA gig out of the deal. It also gives you a chance to meet professors who don't teach or otherwise interact with undergrads.

    In fact, if you hang out in the graduate program in your department, it's way easier to meet people than through traditional undergrad channels.

    Also, random observations:
    -Connections matter A LOT. I got accepted to both departments where my advisor used to be on the faculty; I doubt this is coincidental.

    -If you're at a big school (like mine) realize that you have to take the initiative in getting to know your professors. Even if you get the top score in their class, that's not enough; they're too busy to seek you out to know more about you.

    -Talk about your potential research ideas with your professors. Going to seminars can really help in developing your intuition of what research should look like.

    -If you're looking to be an RA for someone, exploit your network of fellow students. I've recommended several of my friends to RA for my advisor, and he hired them based on my recommendation.

    (I'm from a top 15 department, so this probably mainly applies for students in departments with good PhD programs and well-known faculty)

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