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Two of my students interns have applied for graduate school and are now asking me for references. Both did well, but one did really well. The weaker student is still excellent, and will do well in grad school I’m sure, but my reference for him will not be as strong.

They are applying to some of the same programs.

How do I reflect their ranking in the letters without completely killing the weaker candidate’s chances?

How honest do I get with the weaker candidate? I think it may be better that they apply to more (and different) programs, but don’t want them to get the impression they are not good enough.

More context:

  1. The interns worked on one project together where the weaker student was the lead (culminated in a submission to a top venue). The stronger intern had a separate project that he successfully completed, in addition to two more projects that are currently in the works.

  2. Both are applying to top US schools.

3

Let me suggest a few things you might consider. The one thing you don't want to do, of course, is to explicitly compare them. Depend on the fact that an application is multi faceted and while letters are very important, so are other things.

I suggest that you first think about what would happen if it were turned around and you were receiving the letters. What would you want to know about each of them. What positive traits, especially, are you looking for and would want some assurance about. You might make a list, separately, for each candidate.

Next, I would write the two letters on different days, giving yourself a bit of time to let the first one settle out so that it isn't the freshest thing on your mind when you write the other.

Finally, I would write the letter for the "weaker", but still strong, student first. Say what you need to say about that student to best support the application. Be honest, of course, and stick to facts. What has this student done to make them a good candidate? How strongly do you feel about their future success? You don't need to send the letter yet, but set it aside.

Then after, a day (or so), think about the other student and write that letter. Don't refer to the first letter, but use the same criteria.

Ideally, the letters should be independent, but it is probably impossible to assure that completely. But give it a try. Use some technique in which you can think about each of them independently of the other. And if you would surely accept one or the other of the students, or both, into your own program, say that, but separately for each. That is the most important part of any recommendation, perhaps.

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One thing that can help is having concrete reference points. For example, you might say what caliber of graduate school you think is appropriate for the student. If you say one student should go to a top 5 school and the other a top 10, then it's clear which one you're more enthusiastic about, but you also won't have destroyed the chances of the comparatively weaker student at schools that know they're not in the top 5.

  • Thanks @NoahSnyder. Would that not slightly offend the admissions committee? I mean I'd basically be saying to them something like "your school is not quite good, so you can have my weaker intern". Need to write that one carefully... – Spark Dec 2 at 3:57
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    You don’t say anything about how you think the schools they’re applying to are ranked, just what caliber you think is appropriate for the student. Another way you could say this is to pick a comparison to grad students at one of the schools you’re familiar with. I know Indiana, Columbia, and Berkeley and might write that a student compares well to a typical student at one of those, and this calibrates what my enthusiasm level means. – Noah Snyder Dec 2 at 4:27
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Keep in mind that if the committee were only looking for a one-dimensional ranking on a strong-weak scale, they would not ask for a letter but a numerical score. Of course, an overall assessment is part of the recommendation, but it is more informative if you can evaluate different aspects of the candidates' qualifications too. This should also make it easier to communicate who is the stronger candidate without writing too negatively about the other.

You can highlight the respective strengths of A and B, but make it clear which is stronger through (1) the degree of praise may be higher for A, and (2) the skills of A that you choose to highlight may indicate higher chance of immediate success, while the skills of B are more relevant to learning potential and longer-term development.

For instance, many committees can tell the difference between: "A is one of the most capable, independent problem-solvers that I have ever mentored. For instance, she was able to devise a solution to a research problem with minimal assistance and the results will soon be published in a first-author paper." versus "B is a promising researcher and has progressed a lot in terms of knowledge and technical skills during his time in my lab. B is an excellent team player and, if matched with a good mentor, has the potential to be very successful in graduate school."

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You can check this: Writing a letter of recommendation for a mediocre student

But I would advise to merely write a simple letter describing how average the student is. That is not a bad thing. Average does not mean mediocre. Mention first that he took 2 classes with you and:

  • Attended as per reglament/regulations
  • Presented his work/homework as requested each time.
  • Got along with other students and never got into a fight.
  • Was respectful to his superiors and equals.
  • Kept himself orderly in class

A person does not need to stand out or be exceptional. A recommendation letter can recommend how average good is someone. Grades are not important if he did pass the course, which was the objective, and in some regards or countries, the capacity to get along with others (AKA dont get in trouble) is even more important. Some institutions will prefer a candidate that can work along people and follow orders than one that always tries to show off.

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    They are asking how to NOT throw the student under a bus. – Morgan Rodgers Dec 2 at 19:54
  • @Morgan Rodgers Amusing 'throw under a bus' as 'Useful/not harmful', the answer clearly states how to be polite and still mention valuable stuff. – deags Dec 3 at 19:13
  • For a US letter of recommendation, following your advice would 100% guarantee the student would not get in anywhere. – Morgan Rodgers Dec 3 at 19:33
  • @Morgan Rodgers OP did not specify country or origin or destination for the letters. For the rest of the world such type of letter would work, although in most of the world recommendation letters are merely optional or are even frown upon as nepotism. – deags Dec 3 at 20:38

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