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What do graduate programs think of positive and strong recommendation letters from a professor at the same university? Are they valued more than letters from other universities?

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A letter from a professor at the same institution can be extremely valuable. I would not necessarily say that they are more valuable than equally on point letters from outside. However, if a professor is writing a letter to a graduate admissions committee at the same institution, the letter-writer is almost certainly going to have a very good idea what the program may be looking for and how to emphasize the student's suitability for the program. The reference writer can tailor the letter to make the best possible case, in a way that might be more difficulty for an outside writer.

Moreover, the letter-writer's influence may not end with the written letter. I have written letters for undergraduate students at my university (some applying to graduate programs in my department, some others applying to programs in other departments). In some cases (mostly when the students were applying to programs in my own department), I have been contacted by the other faculty members reading the applications, to get a better idea of the students' strengths and potential weaknesses. (In my reference letters, I always invite the addressees to contact my if they have further questions about a candidate, but it is very rare to get such follow-up inquiries from departments at other institutions.)

  • I would add that in the case of very small research groups, this may not work out. I'm applying for a PhD in my current (Master's) supervisor's group and he is the one reviewing the applications and conducting the interviews, so it was pointless for him to write me a reference, as he would be the one reading it. Instead, I asked someone else, effectively meaning I had three referees (current supervisor + 2 letters). – astronat Dec 21 '16 at 21:43
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    @NatalieHogg: Definitely, if you are applying for a further graduate position specifically with the letter writer (as you might under the UK system), things can be trickier. However, in those instances, the formal application process probably isn't the most important part of landing the position. – Buzz Dec 21 '16 at 21:53

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