Many students have asked for a letter of recommendation to support their grad school applications at US universities. Most of them aim for business schools, but many also go for science.

Now, admission committees to American undergraduate programs consider not only the prospective student's school performance but also their "well-roundedness". But how does that matter for graduate programs? Should I appeal to that in a letter of recommendation and if yes, how should I do that? One student actually asked to write a letter that makes him appear more well-rounded.

How much does this weigh in for grad school admissions? Are there differences between scientific disciplines to consider?

  • This may have been discussed previously in Academia (I haven't searched), but I think the question is worth raising, because I would think non-high-BMI well-roundness would play a more important in some areas (education, business, etc.) than in others (classics, math, etc.), and I'm curious as to what those who are more knowledgeable than I am about these matters think. – Dave L Renfro Oct 17 '18 at 16:42

Why be well-rounded?

Well-roundedness for undergraduates is partly about being adaptable and therefore prepared for a college education. Someone who both has good grades and also competes in athletics, holds a job, etc. has perhaps shown some experience in balancing their different responsibilities. Additionally, someone with a breadth of experience is more likely to actually know what they want to do next rather than sort of just blindly going with the flow.

Usefulness of well-rounded experiences for potential graduate students

I think this last part applies best to the appropriateness of well-roundedness for graduate school. Someone who has shown multiple interests and is now choosing to specialize one is probably making a more informed decision than someone who hasn't. As an example, if they've gathered experience in math, physics, and engineering and are now applying to a physics graduate program, they probably know physics is actually the field that excites them most. They also might carry in some extra skills that not everyone in their graduate program would have: programs in the biological sciences or business, for example, can really benefit from incoming students with quantitative or computational skills.

Knowing what sort of recommendation letter to write

As far as how to write recommendation letters, I would recommend asking the student for some feedback. Prospective students should have some idea of why they are asking certain people for recommendations; when I applied, I asked for one professor who taught me in courses on the history of science, completely outside my field of interest. I hoped to convey some breadth of experience by asking for that letter.

My other recommendations were from people more in my field and were better positioned to talk about my potential for research (which is still the most important thing in a graduate application). If those people had written about breadth instead of their opinions of my research potential in my field, they would look quite odd and probably not be helpful.

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  • I have to disagree about asking the student. Students often don't have a good idea of what admissions committees are looking for. Instead, OP should try to ask someone on an admissions committee in the relevant field. – user37208 Oct 17 '18 at 20:30
  • @user37208 My point was that different letter writers are often meant to highlight different parts of a student's suitability - asking the student is a way to find your role. If the student hasn't thought about it, then this is also a cue to them that they should be thinking about it. If they don't have any idea what admissions committees are looking for, then they are in pretty big trouble because recommendation letters are just one small part of an overall application. – Bryan Krause Oct 17 '18 at 21:02

Undergraduate institutions are interested in building a student body that will work well together and develop on many fronts simultaneously. They look at many things beyond academics, such as sports and various student organization activities. Socialization is a goal.

In graduate school the concerns are much narrower and more academically focused. However, at that level being well rounded can mean having fairly (or very) broad academic interests. At the doctoral level people specialize, but prior to that, universities expect that students will have a broad education that will support them if economic and political conditions change. In fields like Business, it seems obvious that having a background in History or Philosophy can be a help, both in the narrow and broad sense. But even in science and mathematics, knowing something outside the narrow field can help you do the technical work as well as help assure that you aren't leaving too much aside as your interests narrow. Such knowledge is also useful if some art or science needs to be applied.

So, if you are writing letters for graduate school, stressing academic breadth is a good thing, though of course, the student needs skills in the chosen field.

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