While looking around for an answer to this, I have been getting conflicting opinions/answers, so I decided to ask here: Is publishing a great research paper as an undergrad more important than great letters from your professors when applying to grad school?

Another phrasing: If you had only one of these (great research vs. great letters), which scenario would more likely help the graduate application?

  • 23
    If you don't get great letters as a result of your great research, you're probably doing it wrong. Also, you should specify what field you are in, as academia varies. – ff524 Jul 20 '16 at 16:56
  • 10
    It's pretty unlikely that you are going to produce "great research" as an undergrad (if you were, what is grad school going to teach you?). More than anything, you get into grad school for your perceived potential. Yes, a little neat paper or project might attest to that, but it's not going to be studied in detail when spending 10-20 minutes on your application. Your letter-writers know you best (or at least you'd hope they do): if they highlight your potential, and have good reputation themselves, this will probably matter more than anything (although some people here will disagree). – gnometorule Jul 20 '16 at 17:15
  • @gnometorule Sounds like an answer to me (I'll upvote it). – Mad Jack Jul 20 '16 at 17:29
  • @Mad: Thanks, but I think the by now posted answer covers the same (or similar) bases. :) – gnometorule Jul 20 '16 at 17:34
  • 1
    This is slightly tongue in cheek, but stands up well in my experience. It really helps if you're in the same party crowd as the professors running the grad program you want to get into. – pojo-guy Jul 20 '16 at 19:46

Short answer: In practice, letters are more important.

Long answer: Doing great research is great, but if I'm on an admissions committee, how do I know your research is great? I can read your paper, but unless it's close to my area of expertise, it can be hard or at least time-consuming to determine its quality. I probably have too many applicants who wrote a paper to read everyone's paper in detail (depending on how common undergraduate authorship is in my field). And even if I'm convinced the paper is great, how do I know what your contribution to the paper was? (In the fields I'm familiar with, it's very rare for undergrads to author solo papers.) On the other hand, if I have a letter from a faculty member whose word I trust saying that this paper is great and you did most of the hard work (or even that he/she is very impressed with your potential), that's much more useful.

  • I was going to answer, but I think you really nailed the key points quite succinctly. +1 – BrianH Jul 20 '16 at 18:16


If you were asked to pick one, really either one is extremely helpful for getting into graduate school. Great letters will speak to your potential as a researcher, and great research shows it fairly concretely - but as has been noted, it may be hard to recognize research quality outside of a particular subfield. In my field however (public health) there are some broad strokes measures of quality that someone can pick out. And if we're talking about publications, that's rare enough in my field to be an unusual entry on someone's CV.

Moreover, I'd suggest that this dichotomy is something that likely won't exist, especially if you do great research. A good letter discussing that research, cementing its contribution in the admission committee's mind and setting it up as "a preview of things to come" should follow pretty naturally.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.