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I am applying for Master's program in CS. I have the following two alternatives:

  • An LoR from a startup founder for significant and relevant work. The possible problem is that the entire team consists of final-year undergraduates including founders, however they are from a relatively well-known university in the country that I am applying to (USA).

  • An LoR from one of my professors with whom my interactions have been only during courses and labs which are not directly relevant to my area of specialization.

Which of these would be more effective as part of my application?

My other LoRs are from a professor with whom I have worked on a relevant R&D project for almost a year, and one from a professor about coursework and labwork, which is relevant to the field.

  • 3
    Why not get both? – Pete L. Clark Oct 16 '14 at 2:37
  • I have to submit three, out of which one that I have decided on will be pretty similar (professors' whose classes and labs I took) as mentioned in the last line of the question. – asheeshr Oct 16 '14 at 2:44
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    I want to second what @PeteL.Clark said which is that even though they only ask for three, you can submit four. At worse they will just ignore the last one, at best they will read it and it will strengthen your application. – I Like to Code Oct 16 '14 at 3:29
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If the startup is showing evidence of success (e.g., it's actually raising significant venture capital or making money from clients), then if it were me, I would absolutely go with the letter from the startup. They may be have been undergraduates, but now they are a Small Business Success Story, and you are part of that story. It will help you stand out as unique, capable of taking initiative, and capable of working on ill-bounded problems as part of a team.

If, on the other hand, the startup is still little more than a collection of nebulous hopes, dreams, and semi-finished software, the professor (who is essentially neutral as far as recommendation value goes) is a safer bet.

  • Our startup has got some initial money and our beta product is up and running; we have consciously restricted the initial launch to a small user base to gain experience before moving forward; with most of out activity being documented on our website/blog/couple of news pieces. – asheeshr Oct 16 '14 at 2:29
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    Given that it's got funding and an active beta, it sounds like the startup is "real" enough for a recommendation from the founders to be valuable in setting you apart from the crowd. If I were the professor reviewing, I would certainly think well of that letter. Good luck! – jakebeal Oct 16 '14 at 2:49
  • Thanks for the advice. Certainly helps. Out of curiosity, hypothetically, why wouldn't work experience from a startup that failed be considered equally? Even if the company failed after releasing a finished product, the engineering team did invest as much time and effort and probably learned on the way. There could be any number of factors that worked against them. – asheeshr Oct 16 '14 at 2:52
  • In essence: success builds credibility. If a startup failed, but was led by people with a track record of success then it would be more possible to take their recommendation of an engineer seriously. But if a bunch of young unknowns try and fail, how can the reader tell whether their evaluation of an engineer is really sound or if it's just a product of wishful thinking and friendship? – jakebeal Oct 16 '14 at 2:57

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