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PhD letters of recommendation

cjlcropcjlcrop Posts: 4Registered User New Member
edited April 2009 in Graduate School
Hi all,

I'm a British University student planning to apply to Political Science PhD programmes for admission in Fall 2010.

I'm getting to grips with the requirements for American graduate applications - the GRE etc - but one thing that stands out for me is the requirement to provide letters of recommendation. Can people give me any advice about these letters? Here in the UK, if we get a letter of recommendation from a professor or advisor, it tends to be extremely generic and show no personal knowledge of the candidate at all:

"I can wholeheartedly recommend Joe Bloggs, he is an excellent and hardworking student etc etc"

I am intending to apply to some very selective schools (Stanford, Harvard, Yale, Chicago amongst others) and whilst I know that those are very difficult places to get admitted, I feel that I have a chance at least. All my practice tests on the GRE have been in excess of 1550 and I am currently studying at a very well regarded UK university (Cambridge), but I'm worried that the letters of recommendation might be a weak point on my application.

I'm not a Political Science undergraduate, so if I get letters from my current professors then they will not be from people with a knowledge of political science. Should I just get letters from my professors/advisors anyway? Or from other people I know who have a political science connection of some kind? (A close friend family friend was a very senior diplomat - is it appropriate to have a letter from him?)

Apologies for the long-winded post. Any advice much appreciated!
Post edited by cjlcrop on

Replies to: PhD letters of recommendation

  • NCLNCL Posts: 149Registered User Junior Member
    Coming from Cambridge, you will have a very good chance of admission at any of these schools as long as you have a good transcript and your GRE score is good. You don't have to worry too much about recommendation letters, most international students don't have very personalized recommendation letters. Just make sure the professors you ask for letters won't say anything negative and mark you as one of the top students in the class (many recommend letters are accompanied by official forms, on which the professor is asked to check boxes that rank the student, e.g. top 5%, 10%, or 50% etc). And a letter from a senior diplomat will certainly help your application.
    Good Luck.
  • cosmicfishcosmicfish Posts: 3,419Registered User Senior Member
    As far as letters go, anything negative is death - it looks like you cannot find any people able to speak well of you. Beyond that, impersonal but good is a bit below par, but acceptable. The standard you should aim for is (1) personal and (2) discussing research. Remember that PhD programs are looking for researchers, so they want letters from researchers saying "this guy was great doing a basic level of research with me - he is a safe bet for your own program!" You may only be able to get this from one person, but it REALLY helps.

    Don't worry about the program cross-over - a lot of people switch for grad school.
  • ParAlumParAlum Posts: 439Registered User Member
    Don't worry about the cultural bias toward or against effusive statements in LORs. Those of us who serve on admission committees are well aware of the cultural differences associated with letter writers from different countries. For example, if a LOR from a German Prof states a student is adequate, that is an incredible recommendation!

    It is more important that the individuals who are chosen to write LORs have had the opportunity to assess your abilities in your chosen field.
  • jessiehljessiehl Posts: 3,328Registered User Senior Member
    A close friend family friend was a very senior diplomat - is it appropriate to have a letter from him?

    In general, it's not helpful to get recommendations from celebrities (unless their celebrity is from being a star in your field). The letters should be backing up the claim that you are capable of doing PhD-level work and thriving in a program of the target school's caliber. This is why it's usually a bad idea to have non-PhDs write letters - how can they attest that you are capable of doing something, if they haven't done it themselves, and thus have no real frame of reference for what it requires?

    If your senior diplomat has a PhD, it might be reasonable to get a letter from him.

    I'd say that you want at least one letter to come from your field. Have you done research with a political science professor? Even though you are not a poli sci major, have you taken any classes in the subject? You might be able to get an in-field letter this way. Beyond that, you want people who will attest to your capabilities in relevant skills, such as research and writing. These skills are needed across fields, and so it's not unreasonable to have profs from outside of your field write them if those are the profs who know your skills.
  • somemomsomemom Posts: 9,278Registered User Senior Member
    You might also look for info about US LORs and provide a sheet to your UK profs outlining what US schools are looking for in a LOR
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