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A little background... I attended a community college for 2 years, then transferred to Northwestern University where I studied mathematics. After spending seven years in the workforce, I am now planning to apply to graduate programs to study machine learning, and am looking back to see who I could ask for letters of recommendation.

During my years at Northwestern I lacked the foresight to forge any kind of relationships with my professors. However, while at the community college I made a strong connection with one of my math professors - in fact, taking the calculus course with him was the reason I decided to major in mathematics. I believe the community college professor would write me a strong, personalized letter of recommendation.

Which would I be better off with - an average letter of recommendation from one of my professors from Northwestern, or a strong letter from my community college professor?

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    The question would be, what can the CC professor say that will be relevant to your preparation for graduate study? For a graduate program in math, the answer would be essentially "nothing"; basically every applicant will have done a good job in their lower division classes, and the question is how they did in more advanced classes (which presumably you did not take at the CC). It would be about as useful as a letter from your third grade teacher saying you were really good at long division. But I don't know whether the same applies for machine learning. – Nate Eldredge Jul 27 '16 at 2:36
  • How do you know that after 7 years they will even remember you? If you want to study ML, your recommendations should strongly convey that you have experience in ML and that you are passionate about ML. Otherwise, I wouldn't bother. – Hobbes Jul 27 '16 at 20:13
  • @NateEldredge I agree, if the letter was limited to "he took this class and did well." I am hoping that the professor I speak of would write me a more nuanced letter regarding my motivation. – mikage Jul 28 '16 at 1:24
  • @Hobbes You're right, since I wasn't involved in ML as an undergrad 7 years ago I should forget everything I've done since then and give up. Why are you here? – mikage Jul 28 '16 at 1:26
  • Perhaps you can elaborate further on what the CC professor would be able to say about you in his letter, and in what specific ways it would be "strong". Then we may be able to help evaluate how relevant it would be, and how it would be seen by a committee. – Nate Eldredge Jul 28 '16 at 4:18
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I would recommend the strong letter of recommendation, if he/she is able to give specific facts about what you did, or comment on your motivation, interest, and relationship. You might want to also let him/her know what you have been up to recently, so the reader doesn't think "well he/she used to be interested in math, but I don't know if they still are".

The main issue with "average" letters is that they are probably things that apply to everyone, so it's not really a benefit.

You might also want to make sure to "diversify" if you can -- so you don't end up with two letters that look the same. So if your other letters are coming from the community college, you might still want one from your stronger school (as long as they can write you a good letter of recommendation)

  • Also if you're not sure if they can give you a letter of recommendation, simply ask "can you write me a good letter of recommendation?" As long as you (and they) are decent, they will tell you if they can write you a good letter, or if you should ask someone else first. – Nate 8 Jul 27 '16 at 1:59
  • I will make sure to ask if they can write me a good letter when I contact my professors. The consensus here seems to be good community college professor letter >= average professor university letter, so I will feel out the responses from my university professors before committing to anything. – mikage Jul 28 '16 at 1:21
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Strong, personalized letters that can attest to your personal strengths are always helpful in graduate admissions (and in general!). So getting a letter from soneone who knows you well is always helpful.

However, I think your choice is a false dichotomy, since you need multiple letters of recommendation. So unless you are asking about a choice of recommendations to "round out" your set, you will probably need recommendations from both your community college as well as your undergrad institution.

  • I only need one additional letter of recommendation for the program I'm most interested in - so it is somewhat of a tiebreaker situation. Thank you for the input, I will reach out to my professors and feel out their responses, but based on the feedback here I won't just take what I can get from my university professors. – mikage Jul 28 '16 at 1:31

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