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I am applying for a master's program at Yale university. My advisor has given me a draft of his reference letter for me. Overall it is a very nice letter, and finishes "[name] always shows great interest in [field], is enthusiastic, and a talented young scientist with great prospects. I rate them within the top 3% of their peers."

I don't know whether to ask for this 3% sentence to be removed. Is it good enough for Yale, or would I be better off without it and letting the rest of the letter stand alone?

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    I always thought that showing a reference letter to a student is unethical.
    – Mihail
    Oct 11, 2023 at 18:41
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    @Mihail Why? I always thought the receiver showing the letters to students without the writer's consent or knowledge may be problematic, but how the writer and the student, presumably having a personal relationship, interact is their own business. In fact, many people would even go as far as to say non-transparent letters themselves are unethical (and in some jurisdictions and fields, uncustomary or even illegal).
    – xngtng
    Oct 12, 2023 at 9:14
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    @Mihail - that seems to me to be an American norm. I've always sent (or better to say, included) my own reference letters anyway, so it's not like I wouldn't see them.
    – Davor
    Oct 12, 2023 at 13:46
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    Just take this high compliment for what it is. Don't try to edit or second-guess it - your advisor has already spent enough time on it. Presumably they have more experience with what makes a good reference letter than you... :) Oct 12, 2023 at 18:02
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    In my experience, letters of recommendation do not really matter. I also think top 3% is just fine.
    – Bob
    Oct 12, 2023 at 22:41

4 Answers 4

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I show my students drafts of the letters I write for them. I don't expect or ask for suggested changes, except on matters of fact I might have gotten wrong. Let it be. It's a strong letter.

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If your institution is known for sending people to places like Yale, then I think that this is a very strong recommendation. I've written things like that for students after some thought about other student's I'd recommended. And also thinking about what I'd be able to say about future candidates.

You can substitute that professor for the institution, if you like. If the professor has sent people to top institutions and they have succeeded there, then, again, it is very strong.

I'd hesitate (at least) to ask them to remove it when they are trying to say you are a "top" candidate. You don't need to be the best they ever saw (and probably aren't) to be well regarded.

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    +1 ". You don't need to be the best they ever saw (and probably aren't) to be well regarded." This so much!
    – Alexis
    Oct 12, 2023 at 15:43
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It's quite reasonable for you to be invested in the content of your reference letters. That being said: Knowing how to phrase reference letters, and how they will be read at various institutions and in various countries, is a skill that develops over time with experience. I think your default assumption should be that your advisor has more knowledge than you about what is good to include in reference letters.

If your advisor specifically asked for your feedback on the letter, you could raise a point about that sentence and ask for more information about why he included it and what it conveys. If he didn't ask for feedback and is just showing you the letter as a courtesy and for encouragement, I think you should trust his judgment.

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are you in a large cohort? If so, top 3% is quite good. I've had referees include this line in letters before and including a statement giving the number of people in the cohort could be useful context in the letter. As to the standards of the university, I think this is less important, but I can't speak to Yale specifically.

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    Why would the quality of a given percentile be a function of the size of the cohort? If anything, if you're in a cohort of only 30, the top ~3% is the best you can be, possibly you should be ranked even higher but with only 29 people to compare to, you just can't be better than the 97th percentile/top 3%.
    – Bryan Krause
    Oct 10, 2023 at 19:57
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    good point, wouldn't it be that in a smaller cohort it's less competitive to be in the top?
    – realkevlar
    Oct 10, 2023 at 19:59
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    Why would that be?
    – Bryan Krause
    Oct 10, 2023 at 20:06
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    @BryanKrause presumably if the professor has taught a thousand students, his/her judgment of "top 3%" carries more weight than a professor who has only taught fifty students, thanks to larger sample size.
    – Allure
    Oct 10, 2023 at 23:44
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    @Allure But then that's not specific to what realkevlar is referring to... it has nothing to do with the mention of "3%", but to literally any subjective judgment.
    – Sneftel
    Oct 11, 2023 at 14:24

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