I'm applying for Mathematics MS degree and I have an issue with getting an recommendation letter from undergrad professors. I didn't plan to apply for grad school unitil recently and I was never a type of student who visits professors during office hour or get friendly with them. Fortunately, I know two professors that I've worked with during an internship and they are willing to write me the letters. But as most schools require three letters, I still have an issue.

I do have classes (semester-long) that I got good grade, but again, I've never talked to any of those professors. For now, it seems I have two scenarios.

  1. Get letter from someone from non-academic field that knows me personally
  2. Get letter from undergrad professor who doesn't know me personally

I know it sounds ridiculous, but what would be the better choice?

Thank you.

  • 2
    Get a letter from an undergrad professor that you got a good grade from, preferably in a smaller-size class. That letter won't be weighted very heavily, but it won't raise any red flags, the way that having no recommendation letters from your undergrad coursework and one non-academic letter might. Dec 4, 2018 at 1:44
  • A "did well in class" letter is not helpful but is better than nothing.
    – xuq01
    Dec 4, 2018 at 4:49
  • @PeterShor What is this mythical “smaller size class” of which you speak?
    – JeffE
    Dec 5, 2018 at 16:37
  • 2
    @PeterShor My point is that in many degree programs (like mine), students may never have a class with less than 100 students. — I was never a type of student who visits professors during office hour — Note to future readers: Do not do this.
    – JeffE
    Dec 6, 2018 at 16:25
  • 2
    @JeffE: Note that I said smaller, not small. I've written letters for students who took 80-student classes with me. I expect they weren't weighted that heavily by the admissions committee, but for graduate admissions, I still think they would be better than a random person outside of academia, even one who knows the student well. Dec 9, 2018 at 17:01

1 Answer 1


I would recommend getting a letter from someone in the field even if they do not know you personally, but this is based off of my experience from getting letters and may vary slightly from what you are doing. The guidelines I was given were to obtain letters from 1) someone who is able to speak to my academic talent and 2) someone who knows about the program you are applying to. In this instance, it would be helpful to get a letter from a professor where you did well in their class. If you need letters for other purposes (like a character reference), then it may be helpful to consider getting a letter from someone who knows you personally. If you get a letter from someone who has never gone to grad school, it may be difficult for them to explain why you would be a good candidate for the program you are applying to.

Even though you did not spend a lot of time getting to know your professors, you would be surprised at how many may remember you. I faced a similar dilemma when obtaining my letters, but it turned out really well. I recommend 1) emailing your professors with your name, semester you took them, and your GPA in that class and scheduling an in-person appointment and 2) bringing any application materials (like a statement of purpose) that may help the professor in writing you a strong letter. The worst thing that can happen is the professor declining to write a letter, and in that case, you would have the backup of asking someone who knows you better and is more likely to say yes to writing a letter.

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