In its online application form for graduate admission, Stanford University requires three recommenders and allows for another three optional ones. Quoting the application form:

You must provide three letters and evaluations from faculty or others qualified to evaluate your potential for graduate study. At least one letter and evaluation should be from a faculty member at the last school you attended as a fulltime student (unless you have been out of school for more than five years). Substitutions for faculty recommendations may include work associates or others who can comment on your academic potential for graduate work.

Reading this, I feel somewhat uncertain what type of recommendations would most help my application. I'm particularly confused by the phrase

Substitutions for faculty recommendations may include work associates...

I worked for Apple a few years back. A favorable letter from my then-supervisor might convey the impression that I'm technologically minded and enjoy ties to Silicon Valley. Considering Stanford's own proximity and close connection to the Valley, such a recommendation might be well-received?

On the other hand, I'm applying to the theoretical Physics program. My former supervisor at Apple clearly has no basis on which to judge my potential for graduate work in this field. Can anyone provide some pertinent insight into what purpose recommendations are supposed to fulfill? Would a letter solely commenting on my work ethic and team spirit help my case?

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    What was your former supervisor's background? If they had a technical degree, perhaps even a PhD, that would change the balance significantly. I have written recommendation letters to graduate programs for folks, but I am a PhD and manage a research group at a national lab. You might be surprised at the backgrounds of managers at Apple.
    – Jon Custer
    Nov 16, 2016 at 15:24
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    Even if you didn't do research and your boss wasn't a PhD, were you successful in a high-pressure environment? Were you forced to adapt to changing circumstances, be creative, work as a team, meet deadlines? I'm actually hard pressed to think of any way employment at a high-profile tech firm is not an unambiguous positive, assuming you weren't in an utterly unrelated area, like a chef in the Apple cafeteria, or sub-par at your job. You still need your academic ones, but this would be a great third or fourth letter.
    – Jeff
    Nov 16, 2016 at 18:57
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    @JeffL. I really had to laugh at ...assuming you weren't in an utterly unrelated area, like a chef in the Apple cafeteria, .... No, I wasn't but thanks for the warning. :)
    – Janosh
    Nov 16, 2016 at 20:41

1 Answer 1


The important thing to keep in mind is that the goal isn't this specific letter, but composing the best possible application for, in this case, Stanford. So the primary question is: would a letter from your supervisor at Apple improve your set of recommendation letters? If you already have 6 letters from very qualified people that know your work well and can comment on your ability to perform at the Stanford program, a letter from your former boss might not add much. However if you only have 3 people at the moment who can really say something about you, adding your former boss couldn't really hurt. A few things in mind are:

  1. How long, how long ago and how closely did you work with your former boss compared to the other people writing you letter of recommendation?
  2. Was there a (strict) selection process to get into Apple? If so, the selection people at Stanford might be interested why the selection people at Apple chose you out of all possible candidates.
  3. Did you do any research at Apple, or answer any research questions? Even when not doing theoretical physics, your attitude towards discovery and finding new knowledge might be relevant.
  • I'd build on the third point by suggesting that you think about the relevance of what you did at Apple to the process of completing a graduate program. Remember that any program will require a certain number of transferable skills. Besides research, did any of your work at Apple show that you would be well-suited to this graduate program? You don't say what you did at Apple, so you may be the only one able to answer this.
    – Ian_Fin
    Nov 16, 2016 at 11:33

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