Like many people, I hate the recommendation forms for graduate schools, particular the part where you're asked to rank/rate a whole bunch of abilities. When the electronic application allows me, I omit this part or select an option like "cannot evaluate" and maybe make a comment somewhere to see my letter for everything.

I know many people just mark the highest ranking for everyone, but I don't even want to do that (for one, it seems dishonest; also, sometimes it's not clear which is the highest ranking without carefully reading the question).

The places I'm familiar with (some math grad schools) probably don't care about what you put here at all. As far as I can tell, the people who design these forms are pretty far removed from those who make admissions decisions. The only time I could see these coming into play is if a student gets very bad ratings or one person has lower ratings from the same recommender.

But I want to make sure I'm not doing my students a disservice, so:

Does anyone know of any US grad programs where not ticking these boxes on recommendation forms will hurt my students' chances? If so, please indicate what kinds of graduate programs (e.g., maybe it matters for MBA but not STEM programs).


It can definitely hurt the students. Having worked on master's and doctoral admissions in my own department (physics and astronomy) and occasionally been consulted by faculty in closely related departments (chemisty and applied math) about unusual applicants, I can attest that there are some faculty members that do pay attention to those checkbox rankings. They are not numerous in my department, but they do exist.

In most cases, the students' test scores, grades, and recommendation letters speak for themselves. For a strong applicant, those checkboxes are probably never going to cost them an admissions slot. However, when there are some questions about the strength of a recommender's letter, some people of the committee do turn to the numerical ratings to try to get a clearer idea of the applicant's abilities. So if you write a student a compelling recommendation letter, those boxes will likely never matter; however, if your letter is short or expresses possible reservations about a student, you may be further hurting the student by leaving the boxes blank.

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