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Joint Letters of Recommendation
Posted: Wed Aug 29, 2012 12:42 am
I have participated in a variety of research projects over the past four years and am having trouble deciding who to ask for recommendations. In particular, I participated in two REU programs, a couple research projects at my university, and have just started working at a national laboratory (after earning my BSc). At each of the REUs, I was assigned two mentors. Combining all mentors (including my new one), I have seven potential recommenders (six of whom I think would write good letters).
For my first REU project, I worked closely with one of my mentors and had little contact with the other; however, the other mentor is more well-known. For the second REU, I worked just as closely with both mentors, but one is again more well-known.
Would it be possible and/or advantageous to have each pair of REU mentors write "joint" letters on my behalf? Would it be better to choose the mentors I worked more closely with or the mentors who are more well known? If it were possible to have them write joint letters, this would bring me to four strong recommendation letters total.
Any advice would be appreciated!
Re: Joint Letters of Recommendation
Posted: Wed Aug 29, 2012 1:40 pm
I would not recommend asking for joint letters of recommendation.
Even if the two mentors worked closely with you and each other, they likely
developed an independent assessment of your abilities and potential. To
meld those impressions into a single letter will likely weaken the overall
letter since they will have to limit their comments to those aspects that
they both agree are important.
This then leaves you in the position of having to choose among your
many options. I should emphasize that what I am about to say is generic
advice, and may be incorrect in the specific. In general, you should
choose letter writers that can write knowledgeably about your abilities and
your potential for success in graduate school. This means that the quality
and usefulness of a letter does not necessarily correlate with the fame of
the letter writer. The best letters come from individuals we (the admissions
committee) trust and contain well developed descriptions of your academic
maturity, motivation, and potential for success. You cannot know a priori which
of your potential letter writers are most likely to meet these criteria, but you
can guess that an advisor who did not spend much time with you is less likely
to be able to write a detailed letter about your ability and potential for success;
thus, even if they are more well known than your other research advisors, they
may not be the most effective letter writer. One way to move from generic
advice to specific advice is to discuss your options with your advisor(s). They
may know which of these individuals has a reputation for writing strong letters
of recommendation and which (if any) tend to write generic letters. While it is
unlikely that anyone would outright say "don't get a letter from so-and-so, their
letters are useless", your advisor(s) might be able to help you make the best choice.
Re: Joint Letters of Recommendation
Posted: Wed Aug 29, 2012 2:43 pm
I just want to add that you don't need to choose the same 3 LOR writers for every single application you do. If one of your LOR writers have a close connection with one of the schools you are applying to, then that prof would be a good choice for that school.
For me, I sent 3 LORs for most schools but for some, I did send a 4th. What I did was give a list of schools I'm applying to / faculty I wanted to work with to my 4th potential LOR writer and asked him where he thought his letter could make an impact for me. I had a good enough relationship with him for this to be an okay thing to ask, of course. There were some obvious choices (e.g. his alma mater) but some other choices where I didn't know a connection existed -- for example, one of his former students has attended School X and he said he would be able to compare me favourably to that student. I think that a good LOR should not just say that you're a good student, but give a comparative description (e.g. top 5%, 10% etc. of students that prof has supervised). So, a comparison with a current student who is doing well at the school would be helpful.
In addition, although many applications will allow as many as 6 LORs, I would think 4 is probably the max you'd normally want to submit. And, I get the sense that the letters are all weighed equally ("averaged" if you will). So if you narrow it down to 4 choices and realise that one is probably weaker than the other 3, it's probably better to just submit the best 3 instead of going for more but risk "bringing down the average".
Finally, I also had a 2-supervisor REU-equivalent experience and I just chose one. Since you have a variety of experiences to draw from, I don't think it would make sense to "use up" more than one REU slot on the same project. When it comes to "knowing you better" vs "more famous", I'd say it's better to get the prof that knew you better to write the letter, and you'll still benefit from the "famous prof" since your letter and CV will be "name-dropping" the "famous prof" anyways. That is, if the famous prof's letter is only going to be very generic, that letter won't be much more helpful than the line in your CV that says you worked with famous prof.