I am applying to grad school and I asked one of my professors to write a letter of recommendation on my behalf. He happily agreed. He submitted a recommendation and forwarded the confirmation email to me so that I can have look.

On the recommendation form there are some questions that asks the professor to select things like top 1%, 5%, 10% in terms of writing, organization, maturity ..etc.

He chose top 1% in all of them. In another question "What is the group you are comparing thq applicant with ?" He wrote "He was at least in the top 1% compared to all students in the last 5 years".

I told this to a friend and he was surprised and suggested that the admission committee might not take his recommendation seriously. Another one of my referees showed me his recommendation and it was very similar.

My concern is how admission committees look at recommendations that seem too good to be true? The two professors really know me very well and they are the best options I got.

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    I have heard tell of at least one student who didn't do as well as the should have because their referee answered those questions literally. What I find slightly more worrying is that you've read your reference. Every application I've done so far had at least an implicit assumption that references were not shown to the candidate. – Jessica B Nov 12 '14 at 6:47
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    @JessicaB It's only the receiver of the reference who's supposed to treat it as confidential, so that the writer feels able to speak freely (especially if they don't have anything very good to say). But if the writer of the reference wants to show it to the subject, that's fine. After all, if you asked me to tell some grad school about you, what's wrong with me also telling you? Presumably, you asked me because you thought I'd say you were awesome, right? – David Richerby Nov 12 '14 at 9:12
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    @DavidRicherby As I understood it, the point is that the person reading the reference wants to know the candidate has not seen it, so they know it's not altered to please the candidate. Or, more precisely, the candidate wants the person reading the reference to know that it is a genuine reference. Some applications are explicit on the candidate not seeing the reference, so seeing it could cause you problems later. – Jessica B Nov 12 '14 at 10:20
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    @Najib: Yes, I think this is strongly culturally dependent (as also reflected in a comment on my answer by someone from the Netherlands). In North America there is the sense that showing a letter of recommendation to a student somehow compromises its integrity and/or legitimacy. I think it's fair to acknowledge that rationally speaking this need not be true. But it is a very standard cultural feeling nevertheless. – Pete L. Clark Nov 12 '14 at 13:29
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    Also: "In what contexts is it considered inappropriate to show someone their recommendation letter?" sounds like an excellent question for this site. – Pete L. Clark Nov 12 '14 at 13:48

Saying that you gave the first proof of Fermat's Last Theorem is too good to be true. (I.e., it is literally false, since the result was resolved 20 years ago by someone else.) Saying that you are more talented at physics than Einstein and Feynman combined is technically possible but strains credulity to the point that it would have a strong negative effect if not backed up by some truly remarkable facts. However, saying that you are in the top 1% compared to all students in the last five years is obviously not too good to be true: it must be true of at least one student. (These questions are often muddied by not being precise enough about the cohort being compared, and you should know that admissions committees interpret them with a grain of salt.)

When I was involved with PhD admissions in the UGA math department, each year I saw several applications in which the recommender gave the applicant top marks in every category. When this happened I didn't say "Ridiculous!" but instead looked carefully at the rest of the application. It may be that I conclude that the recommender is a bit naive and/or hasn't seen as good students as I have...but that still might mean that the student's application is quite strong. In general top marks are good things, not red flags.

To my mind the fact that two of your recommenders showed you the letters is much more of a red flag than the top ratings. The strongest letters of recommendation often contain confidential information that would not be suitable for the candidate to read (e.g. comparisons to other named people). If such information doesn't appear then there is nothing inherently wrong with the practice, but nevertheless it does not inspire my confidence.

I guess if you are looking at the recommendation letters you have a chance to evaluate their suitability (which you can use in a future year; it is awkward and perhaps even ethically suspect to withdraw a recommendation letter after reading it). At least in US graduate applications, good letters are about a lot more than the slightly silly ratings. They also contain several paragraphs of text, usually occupying at least the better part of a page. If someone gives you absolutely top marks and then writes little or nothing to back them up, they look quite lazy. Though that does not specifically reflect on you, it certainly doesn't help your application either.

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    It should be entirely possible to give a strong recommendation in objective terms (student has mastered technique X, published in journal Y, has surprising insights/questions during class etc.). Comparisons to other named people could in itself be a breach of confidentiality by the professor, even when only shown to other professors. Especially when phrased like "student X is better than former student Y". Perhaps phrasing it like "haven't had a student of X's calibre since (now firmly established researcher) Y." could be acceptble. I fail to see why student X shouldn't read this. – TemplateRex Nov 12 '14 at 8:55
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    @Template: Comparisons to other named people -- while not required for grad school applications -- become much more of a fixture in the sort of recommendation letters one writes later on. (When I wrote a tenure review letter, I was asked to do this so directly that I felt that not doing it would significantly weaken the letter.) I am not familiar with the principle that doing so would be a breach of confidentiality. But maybe this is a(n e.g.) European analogue of your lack of familiarity that there is something less than fully kosher about showing the student the letter. – Pete L. Clark Nov 12 '14 at 13:43
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    In summary: I think there are cultural differences at work here (see my comment on the question). I think the right way to proceed is to enunciate them and try to nail down their scope. There are more things in (heaven and?) the academic world than are dreamed of by any one of us. – Pete L. Clark Nov 12 '14 at 13:46
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    @Kyle: That's true, and as a mathematician I have to say "Good point". And yet the categories are similar enough that there is nothing inherently implausible about the assertion that one student comes out on top every time. – Pete L. Clark Nov 12 '14 at 18:56
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    @aeismail: The OP knows all the ratings that were given to him and includes in his question a direct quote from one of the letter writers. I can't think of any other way to interpret this... – Pete L. Clark Nov 12 '14 at 20:17

"The two professors really know me very well and they are the best options I got."

Then you are one lucky individual. And, "don't look a gift horse in the mouth."

Try to find out from them why they think this, so you aren't blindsided at a interview, or by writing something in an essay that contradicts them. Then understand how people see your strengths.

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