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I am a final year student and applying to graduate schools in the USA for Fall 2016. Recently, a professor was filling out my recommendation section in a college's admission portal.

In that portal, there was a question asking to rate the student in terms of intellect, communication ability, and such other things based on 'percentile' in class. The options were 1%, 5%, 10% and 50%. My teacher selected 50% as a higher percentile means better ranking in class. My current class ranking is 2/60 and I am worried about it. Did my teacher do the correct thing or should she have chosen the first option(1%)?

Edit (15 Nov 2018): Well this question is almost 3 years old now. Got a notification from this recently so wanted to thank all the people who answered back then. I did ask my teacher to send the correct data and consequently got in one of the Ivy Leagues in the fall of 2016. So good, baby baby..

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    I'd bet that your teacher did the wrong thing. My guess is that 1% would refer to "the top 1%". And so forth. It might not be too late to have that corrected. – Shane Nov 23 '15 at 15:05
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    I agree with @Shane. But note, if you rank 2/60, you are not in the 1% percentile, but in the 5%. – LSchoon Nov 23 '15 at 15:21
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    In this case, a lower percentile is most likely better. However, it should be noted that in general "95th percentile" is equivalent to the top 5% of your class. This is probably what caused the confusion. – NoseKnowsAll Nov 23 '15 at 16:20
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    Strange, clearly the questionnaire considers the "1% percentile" (??) to be the best 1%, but I've never seen it that way. I've always seen the top 1% being called the "99th percentile". The teacher was probably as confused as I am. I think the questionnaire is poorly-written. – Todd Wilcox Nov 23 '15 at 18:15
  • I've filled out lots of these recommendation questionnaires, and, as far as I can remember, the small numbers were always the better ones. Furthermore, I think most if not all of the questionnaires explicitly had a word like "top" (as in StrongBad's answer) to make that clear. – Andreas Blass Nov 24 '15 at 9:52
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Lower is definitely better. For example, the "Common Application" which is used for applying to undergraduate schools is pretty clear that 1% is good.

enter image description here

The same generally holds for graduate school applications.

You should ask the recommender to try to change it and, if she is unable, she should contact the admissions committee directly. A top 50 percent ranking will almost surely lead to you not being accepted.

If your reference writer is so unfamiliar with the US system, you may want to consider asking someone else. There is an art to writing good recommendation letters. For example, it is reasonable for a recommender to rate the "intellect", "communication ability", etc. as being top 1% even if the student is ranked 2/60 since there is a difference between class rank and "intellect", "communication ability", etc. In fact, differentiating between the two is the whole point of the recommendation letter.

If the recommender is unable to change the letter at this point, it is much better to put in a phone call/email to the chair of graduate admissions than a phone call/letter to the university. In my experience the central administration is useless and you need to get to whoever is actually looking at the applications. It is critical that the recommender, and not the applicant, makes this call/email.

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  • If she's unable to change her choices, would her sending a mail to the university be a remedy to the problem? – Hyperbola Nov 23 '15 at 16:22
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    If this is the "US System" then the US system has changed a lot since I was in school. In Virginia, the top 1% was always called the "99th percentile". Apparently this isn't necessarily cultural, by some (in the US), it's considered mathematical: regentsprep.org/regents/math/algebra/ad6/quartiles.htm – Todd Wilcox Nov 23 '15 at 18:18
  • @ToddWilcox it is possible it has changed, although I do not know when it happen if it did. I added an image from the common app showing that the scale with 1% being good is "common" for undergrad applications. In my experience it holds for graduate school applications also. – StrongBad Nov 23 '15 at 19:14
  • Ah, but that shows the word "top" and not the word "percentile". Perhaps the writer of the original questionnaire the asker is talking about got them conflated. "Percentile" does seem to be a well-defined term. – Todd Wilcox Nov 23 '15 at 19:16
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By the WORDING of the question, we would be led to believe that you would want to be in the highest percentile of the class...i.e. in the mythical 99th percentile.

HOWEVER...by the structure of the constrained-choice answers, they've re-phrased the question to mean the TOP-percentile, which is expressed in the reciprocal fashion, with the 1% being the best.

There would be no sense whatsoever for a school to want to differentiate whether you were the very worst or almost the very worst, or merely average. They want to know if you're the best, almost the best, or merely average.

DO go back to your professor and have them revise the recommendation...sooner than later!

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