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As some students know, sometimes it is not easy to determine whether a professor (restricted to the professors in U.S.) will write a strong letter of recommendation for a student. So the question is, is it appropriate to ask questions like:

  1. What do you think of me compared to other students you taught in the previous semester?

  2. Am I one of the best students in your class? Top 10%? Top20%?

I know these questions are sensitive. Maybe they will dislike me immediately once I ask these questions. I don't know, but I believe that most professors are kind and will be honest to students.

By the way, if I were the professor, I would certainly answer the questions honestly and let the student know if I should be in the their choices. I would not only say something like "you did well in my classes" or "you did better than most of the rest", but also tell them directly if they are in top 1%, 3%, 10% in my mind, but I still wonder what most professors in U.S. universities would think of this.

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    A number of people here have recommended the phrase "Would you be able to write me a strong letter of recommendation?" I suggest browsing the recommendation-letter tag. – Nate Eldredge Jun 7 '16 at 13:40
  • @NateEldredge Thanks! Indeed I have been reading the threads with the recommendation-letter tags for more than one week. I still feel like it is necessary for me to post a direct and "sensitive" question like this unless it is duplicated(I haven't found a very similar question yet) – No One Jun 7 '16 at 13:46
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Closely related to my answer to your linked question:

I don't think it's either necessary or particularly productive to try to interrogate a professor and determine what letter they will write. Simply tell the professor you're thinking of applying to Ph.D. programs and ask them something like:

Do you think that you would be able to write a strong letter of recommendation for me?

The "strong" is important here, because that's what will get you the honest opinion of whether the professor thinks well of you or not, and you don't want letters that are not strong.

If you try to ask the question indirectly, by asking things like "Am I in the top 10%?" then you are dancing around the question. You know you're asking for a strong recommendation, and so does the professor, so you might as well just ask.

Only the most nasty and deceptive of professors will answer dishonestly---and they probably wouldn't have given you an honest answer to your other questions either.

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    Another problem, which for me would be more significant, is that telling the student something like "you're in the top 20% but not top 10%" indirectly reveals information about other students, and this might possibly cause problems for the professor if the comments are leaked and they get wide circulation and some other students wind up being very sensitive about this. – Dave L Renfro Jun 7 '16 at 14:46
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    "If you try to ask the question indirectly, by asking things like "Am I in the top 10%?" then you are dancing around the question." I'm not sure that this is quite true. Many recommendation form directly ask such questions, so I would say that this question is more (in fact probably excessively) direct than "would you be able to write me a strong recommendation letter?" I agree (with what I take to be your position) that, as a professor, I would rather be asked, and am more likely to answer, the latter. – LSpice Jun 7 '16 at 20:41
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    @DaveLRenfro What do you mean by "some other students wind up being very sensitive about this"? In my university, the historic records about course registration and grading are made public to students. Students know how many A,B,C's which professor gave to students in which class he taught in which semester. – No One Jun 7 '16 at 22:01
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    @TiWen This is not the case in many universities. – jakebeal Jun 7 '16 at 22:27
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    In other words: "Ask the question you want answered." – mfitzp Jun 9 '16 at 12:11
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First, I 100% agree with jakebeal's answer.

I just want to elaborate a bit more on why questions of the type "how do I compare with my peers" or "am I in the top 10%" are entirely the wrong question to ask. Consider the following three cases:

  1. Jason enrolled in a small, intensive seminar course. The class is known to have a heavy workload with lots of student participation and input. The professor is known to grade on an absolute/uncurved scale, and is happy to fail the entire class or give the entire class A+'s as the situation merits. The course has 10 students in it this semester. Jason worked really hard and impressed his professor, earning a well-deserved A-. There were two students who earned As, Maria in particular also won a Rhodes Scholarship for next year.

    Would the professor say that Jason is in the top 10 or 20% of his class? No. But what would the professor write in the recommendation letter? He will explain that the course Jason took is a small seminar course, that even though his grades do not place him in the top 20%, this should not be counted against Jason, and that Jason is in fact a very hard working student that he regards highly.

  2. Marshall enrolled in a large linear algebra course. He did great, his grades are consistently in the top of the class. He comes to office hours regularly and asks great questions. Through chatting with him, his instructor found out that Marshall had in fact enrolled in the Honors version of the same course last semester, but decided to drop the Honors version halfway through the semester because "he made a few dumb mistakes and got only a B+ on the first midterm".

    When the undergraduate studies director came asking the instructor whether Marshall should be given an A+ for his stellar work in the linear algebra course, the instructor responds that she does not believe so, since Marshall only excelled because he already "knew" the material, and rather than challenging himself with the honors material he decided to go for the "easy A" for his transcript. And while he has certainly demonstrated work deserving of an A, she does not think Marshall should be rewarded with an A+ which is only given when student work goes above and beyond what is expected.

  3. Tony took a large biochemistry class. He goes to lecture regularly, works very hard, and got perfect scores on pretty much every assignment and almost every lab. At the end of the semester Tony goes to the professor in charge of the course and ask where he places among his peers.

    Prof: "What's your name again?"
    Tony: "Tony Smith"
    Prof: "Let me check" ... clicks away at a computer ... "just a moment" ... clicks more at a computer ... "ah! You seem to have the highest grades in my class. Congratulations."
    Tony: "Will you write me a recommendation letter for Y Scholarship?"
    Prof: "Well, I don't really have a reason to say no. But I don't really know you that well. Tell you what, let me check with your TA to see if we can say something nice about you. What's your name and which section are you in again?"

Sure, it would make everybody's life easier if you happen to be the best student your professor has ever taught. But if you are really a strong student, and the professor is willing to write you a strong recommendation letter, then he or she will definitely be willing to bend over backwards to justify your possible lower rankings when compared to your peers. On the other hand, if you are really not that strong a student, but merely a giant among midgets, then if you choose a professor entirely based on comparisons with your "peers" you may end up with a recommendation letter reflecting just that.


The moral of the story really is this: your ranking among your classmates in the class you took with a professor (or any of these sorts of peer comparison) are at best proxy metrics for how the professor think of you. But proxy indicators are only useful when the "thing" you really want to measure cannot be measured. In this case, however, the "thing" you really want to know is whether the professor will write you a strong letter, so don't go about playing with proxy indicators which can have all sorts of false positives or false negatives and ask the right question already.

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    I am confused. Why would the undergraduate studies director come ask a professor if Marshall deserved an A+? – Azor Ahai Jun 9 '16 at 4:37
  • These are all hypothetical scenarios with embellishments. If it makes you happier: assume the instructor is new to the school and is double checking with the UGS to make sure the grade assignments/curves he is giving is commensurate with the previous years. – Willie Wong Jun 9 '16 at 17:19
  • Ah, I see. I didn't know if that was how grading worked at other universities than mine. – Azor Ahai Jun 9 '16 at 17:20
  • @Azor-Ahai: please don't take that as evidence of how grading worked at any university besides the imaginary one in my head when I came up with the scenario! – Willie Wong Jun 9 '16 at 17:24
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I would find it more than presumptive and too pushy to ask this right before, or in the midst of requesting a letter of reference.

My preferred approach was always where students would visit with me during office hours, engage me in thoughtful banter and dialog in class, perform favorably on written assignments, and ask for a letter of recommendation in the last half or last third of the semester.

This gives me a sufficient scope of the quality of your work, your character and personality, and importantly it should give me plenty of time to complete and submit the letter prior to whatever institutional deadlines you've communicated to me. Moreover, after you've invested your time in this, you will have a great sense of the favorableness of my letter, without putting me on the spot to verbalized it to you.

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I agree with WW that your question is far too broad to have a serious answer. The moral of the questioner's need to post this question is that if you're thinking of grad or professional school, you need to get to know a couple of professors during your junior and senior years, blah, blah, blah. If you have had little interaction with the prof, then asking him/her for a letter is quite an imposition and you certainly are way off base to ask what s/he will say. If you've had a good amount of back-and-forth with him.her I think it's great to make an appointment and discuss your plans and what they think your chances are. This should give you a pretty good idea of what they think of you. From what I am reading, Letters of Recommendation are a large fraction of the typical profs workload, so my above comments seem a bit archaic. If the prof has no other information than your grades and a couple of question/answer exchanges during lectures, then you should expect a direct correlation between your RELATIVE grade and the strength of the recommendation. Given what I just said, I'm wondering why you are asking the question...

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