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I am a MA student who frequently works with undergraduates on projects. One student has asked me if I can write her a letter of recommendation for graduate school. Are there any risks to me submitting a letter, as opposed to her finding a faculty member (who likely would not be in the same field as her interests)? For graduate school applications how much does the position of the person writing a recommendation letter matter, as opposed to his/her academic familiarity with the student? I have already advised her to check with the programs she is applying to in case they have requirements.

Edit: I realize I left this unclear before-- she has two tenured professors willing to write letters. If I agreed to, I would be the third letter. The department is small, so there might not be too many options for an additional letter.

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[H]ow much does the position of the person writing a recommendation letter matter, as opposed to his/her academic familiarity with the student?

It matters very highly. For most graduate programs it would be better to have a letter from a very eminent and trusted person which simply says "Student X's performance in my class convinces me that she will be successful in a top master's/PhD program. I highly recommend that you admit her." than a more personally insightful letter from a less well known faculty member, let alone someone who has not even completed the degree that the student is applying for. If you have not yourself completed a master's degree, how can you certify that the student will be able to do so successfully? (Well, of course it may well be that you probably can, but what degree of trust can the reader put into your letter? Not very much.)

In general, I would recommend that even postdocs and temporary faculty should defer to more senior faculty, if possible, when writing letters, and in any case the student should make sure to get at least one letter from a senior person. If someone who has a PhD (let's say) but is otherwise very junior can say something about the student that other faculty cannot, it could be a good idea to send along a letter, but it would be better to have that be an additional letter beyond the number required. However, for someone like you who has not even completed the degree the student is applying for, I would simply say that you should not write a letter for the student. If you want to help, I would recommend that you find a faculty member who is senior enough but doesn't know the student very well and give them the information that you wanted to convey in your own letter. (Don't write the letter for them! Just give them the information.) It helps of course to find a faculty member that you are comfortable with.

By the way, if you are in the habit of mentoring grad-school bound undergraduates, you would be doing them a favor if you let them know as early as possible that it is in their best interest to make significant contacts with senior faculty as well as with you.

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I agree with Pete above - it is important to have PhDs, esp. senior faculty members as referees. If the student needs three letters, then your will add good specifics to her case. One common problem with letters from senior profs is that they are often too generic. I am a tenured prof, and review applications with reference letters all the time. Most of them are awfully generic. -that being said, I had one of my former students from when I was a T.A. as a Ph.D. candidate from years ago who has asked me for several reference letters over the years: two for teaching jobs, and one to get into grad school. It might have helped that my letter was stamped as a faculty -albeit very junior from a small university - at that stage, but all my comments were about my observations as a T.A.. The student (who was very good) keeps getting in to whatever she applies into. hope this helps. S.

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Recommendation letters for graduate school tend to be generic, yes. I am enough of a reader and writer to wish that the genre were more lively, for sure, but a strong and generic letter from the right person will get the job done. The head of undergraduate mathematics at the University of Chicago (where I did my undergrad) had a reputation for sizing up students well and then deciding which standard letter to submit for them. I am confident that I got the "top drawer, standard" letter. I applied to five PhD programs including the top three in my field and got into all of them. –  Pete L. Clark Mar 12 at 22:39
    
Also, as in my answer, I think that a minimum standard for writing an academic recommendation letter is that the writer needs to have attained the position that the candidate is applying for. (I guess this must change at the very very top, i.e., for Nobel Prizes and the like; I wouldn't know.) Writing about experiences that you had with a candidate before you got your PhD seems totally fine to me. What matters is that you are testifying to the success in something that you yourself succeeded in. Finally, some students are obviously excellent; letters matter more in more borderline cases. –  Pete L. Clark Mar 12 at 22:49

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