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The quantitative part of LoRs

  • Thread starter Dishsoap
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Greetings fellow PFers, and happy Thanksgiving,

I learned recently about the quantitative portion required by many institutions when a letter-writer submits their letter for a student's graduate school application. Apparently it's typical for a professor/advisor to have to answer how their student ranks in various categories (top 1%, top 5%, top 20%, etc.), which I never knew about.

My question is this: how much is this considered? I have worked under some big shot professors who undoubtedly have many exceptional students to brag about, and in some of the categories I worry that I may only be top 20% or so. Had I known about this part, I might have taken fewer risks with regard to graduate school applications. I'm a good student/researcher, but probably not exceptional. Will this mean that I'm automatically cut off for some exceptional universities? Do all systems do this, or only a couple?

Thanks :)

-Dishsoap
 
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Graduate committees know that big shot professors have a lot of exceptional students. So I guess they'll take this into account. For example, if I were in a committee (but I'm not), I would be more impressed if you got a letter of a Nobel prize winner putting you in the top 20%, than a letter from a very unkown professor from a unkown university putting you in the top 1%. This is just me though, so take it with a grain of salt.
 

Choppy

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Often on these assessments there is an opportunity for the referee to spell out the specifics of the assessment situation. I don't think that they are often used in a cutoff context (as in we only take students in the top 20%), rather, it helps to generate an overall picture of the candidate's strengths and weaknesses.

For example in most of the assessment forms that I've seen there will be multiple dimensions of assessment such as: work ethic, communication skills, punctuality, creativity, etc. So if a student is rated in the lower 50% for say, communication skills, by all three referees, that's likely going to serve as a flag to the admissions committee, particularly if the group that the student is applying to requires strength in that area.

Personally I tend to pay a lot more attention to what people choose to say in the free-form part of these letters when I've looked at them in the past, although I can't speak for others.
 

Vanadium 50

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I wouldn't say it's typical, exactly. I think it can be valuable. "Best student all year" is not particularly helpful, especially from a small school that might only graduate a handful of students. (This is one reason why this is a statement from an average letter) "In the top 10% of the students who graduated in the last decade" is a more helpful. It's less prone to statistical fluctuations.

Besides, when you say "I might have taken fewer risks with regard to graduate school applications. I'm a good student/researcher, but probably not exceptional" and "Will this mean that I'm automatically cut off for some exceptional universities?" it sounds like you are counting on these universities on getting an incorrect view of your and your abilities. That doesn't sound to me like a very good idea. If nothing else, if you are admitted to a school that expects more preparation than you have, attending there may not go as smoothly as you would like.
 
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That's encouraging.
I wouldn't say it's typical, exactly. I think it can be valuable. "Best student all year" is not particularly helpful, especially from a small school that might only graduate a handful of students. (This is one reason why this is a statement from an average letter) "In the top 10% of the students who graduated in the last decade" is a more helpful. It's less prone to statistical fluctuations.

Besides, when you say "I might have taken fewer risks with regard to graduate school applications. I'm a good student/researcher, but probably not exceptional" and "Will this mean that I'm automatically cut off for some exceptional universities?" it sounds like you are counting on these universities on getting an incorrect view of your and your abilities. That doesn't sound to me like a very good idea. If nothing else, if you are admitted to a school that expects more preparation than you have, attending there may not go as smoothly as you would like.
I disagree completely. Two of the summer internship opportunities (= 2 of my LoRs) dealt with topics that my school doesn't even teach. Before working at a national lab in HEP, I had never so much as heard the word "fermion" in a classroom setting, only in self-preparation. I also had a summer opportunity in biophysics, and I have never taken a biology course in my life, neither in college nor high school. I tried my best and did quite well (both supervisors were more than willing to write an LoR) but I do not (and, in my opinion, can not) stand up to someone who had the appropriate background.

For this reason, I would expect to be rated in the top 5/10% in categories such as work ethic, responsibility, trustworthiness, punctuality, etc. etc. etc., but I simply would not score well in areas that deal with my knowledge, since at the time I simply was not prepared. Surely the fact that I was an intern at a national lab after only my freshman year cannot reflect poorly on my admissions chances, nor does it mean that attending a good grad school would "not go as smoothly as I would like".
 

Vanadium 50

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I don't understand your position. If your position is that you are worried that your letter writers are not going to be able to paint an accurate picture of you, and that an accurate picture would be better than the letters suggest, I agree that would be a problem. However, that's a problem whether there is comparative information or not in the letters. Furthermore, in that situation, I would expect you to prefer a format that provides more information.

As an aside, if you have gone through a BS in physics without hearing the word "fermion", you probably are underprepared for a top-tier school. It's not because of one word: it's because if they didn't teach you about fermions, it also means they didn't teach you about the Fermi-Dirac distribution, or spin-statistics theorem, or about exchange forces, and probably not much about multi-electron atoms. Grad schools, particularly the better ones, will assume their students are seeing all this for the second time.
 
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I don't understand your position. If your position is that you are worried that your letter writers are not going to be able to paint an accurate picture of you, and that an accurate picture would be better than the letters suggest, I agree that would be a problem. However, that's a problem whether there is comparative information or not in the letters. Furthermore, in that situation, I would expect you to prefer a format that provides more information.

As an aside, if you have gone through a BS in physics without hearing the word "fermion", you probably are underprepared for a top-tier school. It's not because of one word: it's because if they didn't teach you about fermions, it also means they didn't teach you about the Fermi-Dirac distribution, or spin-statistics theorem, or about exchange forces, and probably not much about multi-electron atoms. Grad schools, particularly the better ones, will assume their students are seeing all this for the second time.
I hadn't gone through a BS. At the time of my internship, I had just finished my freshman year.
 

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