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How to indirectly get hints on the strength of a *potential* letter?


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Dear Fellow Urchites,



I'm a senior graduating in June, and I've been trying my best to contribute to the forum from the limited knowledge I have from talking with professors. However, there are still plenty of things I'm trying to figure out myself as well.


So I'll be meeting with a professor I took a class with last Fall (to talk about research/grad school), and I'm wondering whether there are indirect/not-rude questions I can ask to get hints on whether he/she is willing to write me a strong letter.


By means of getting these hints, some advice I've seen in the past were:

(1) ask what range of schools I should be aiming for (if it's low, then this would mean that the prof isn't willing to vouch for the range I want to apply to)

(2) create opportunities for them to say no with easy-to-back-out excuses (ex. "It's completely okay if writing this letter is going to be difficult for you because you're facing a busy period", etc)

(3) directly ask them whether they would be willing to write a strong letter (which I would prefer to avoid, since some professors do not appreciate questions that are too blunt)


I was wondering whether anyone had anything to add or subtract to this advice. In my personal experience, most professors I requested a rec letter for usually always said yes, as long as I was a reasonably good student in class. However, what I couldn't figure out was whether the professor merely viewed me as "a good student" or as an "excellent student I would strongly recommend." This has sort of been a risk factor because the former case may result in a mediocre letter that would be much better to not receive at all to begin with.


I can post my profile if it ends up being relevant, but I'll leave it out for now.

Thanks for your insights in advance!



- mathenomics

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In my experience, after you identify your potential letter writers (based reasonably on the number of courses you took, number of research projects you did with them, how you performed, time given to them, etc), it is better to ask them directly: "Would you be willing to write a strong letter to support me in my application process?" This I believe is not a rude question. It saves time for both you and the letter writers and actually reduce the "risk factor" associated with lukewarm letters as you mentioned.
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I can see how maybe asking for willingness to write a "strong" letter may be perceived as rude (maybe it implies you don't have full "blind" trust in their recommendation of you?), but that's actually exactly what I did with my letter writers. I didn't make a huge deal of it, but I definitely made sure to ask if them if they thought they would be willing to write me a strong letter. I think everyone understands that no one would be asking for a letter from someone without having given it some prior thought/ without thinking the letter would be at least good, so to me asking for a strong letter is really just a formality, and does indeed give them a bit of an avenue to maybe qualify their response (I had to ask for a fourth, academic letter as some of my letters were already from outside academia, and the fourth professor I asked explicitly mentioned that their letter would be short, and outlined specifically what they would be able to speak to).


So I'd rather risk appearing just a bit "pushy" (which I doubt anyone would really think; if they really like you they won't take offense and will support your decision to apply and, in turn, will completely understand as they likely went through the same process that you want a strong and effective letter) than be mild and have an awkward situation where they feel uncomfortable saying they wouldn't be able to write you a good, strong letter (be that because they just don't know you that well, which is a possibility, or otherwise).


So at least personally I suggest just flat-out asking (in a nice, not super obvious way).

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I would also say that if a professor has been encouraging you to go to grad school then they will write you a good letter. I had four professors that I considered asking, but three of them had always been very supportive of me going to grad school (some of them even telling me I should apply before I had decided I wanted to get a PhD). After I decided to apply all of the three professors who became my letter writers were always very willing to help me. They all looked over my list and added some schools. They also helped me decide what math classes I should be taking. I guess I would say that another way to judge how good of a recommendation you are going to get would be to see how much time they are willing to get to know and help you in their office hours.
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