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Usually, professors need to see students' statement of purpose before they write letters of recommendation for them. However,

(1) The most important part of LoRs is the comparison of the applicant with their classmates/peer, which is normally not shown in the statement of purpose.

(2) Professors often talk about students' strengths in LoRs, but they are not supposed to use the strengths mentioned(or boasted of) in the students' statement of purpose when the strengths are unknown to professors before they see the statement of purpose.

(3) Professors may want to know students' experiences, interests and plans for future. But such things are already mentioned in students' statement of purpose and they don't have to repeat them again in the letters of recommendation(professors are not supposed to know students experiences, interests and plans for future better than students themselves, right?).

So my question is, given (1), (2) and (3), why do professors need to look at students' statement of purpose at all when they write LoRs for them? How does the statement of purpose help professors to write letters of recommendation?

  • I'm not a professor, and don't write LORs for undergraduates. I do manage a research group and write LORs for post-docs applying to faculty positions, so perhaps I can give a wider perspective. The point is to help the person you are writing a letter for put together a comprehensive application that specifically addresses a job posting. Knowing about other parts of the application can definitely help with tailoring a LOR for that given posting. Perhaps (well, likely) more true of things like faculty positions, true (hence just a comment). – Jon Custer Sep 18 '17 at 22:27
  • Another possible reason that hasn't been mentioned yet is the fact that the application should provide as much information about the student as possible. Therefore, if a student talks about a certain experience in their SOP, the professor might not want to repeat the description - (s)he can instead focus on a different event or highlight another perspective regarding that experience – neuranna Sep 19 '17 at 0:03
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    Why do you think that professors "are not supposed to use the strengths mentioned(or boasted of) in the students' statement of purpose" in their letters? – D.W. Sep 19 '17 at 6:58
  • Another aspect may unequal familiarity: a student might "know" only one or two professors; to a professor, a student could be "one from a group of 60+" and many might be no better known than "someone who comes to my lectures". Having statement of purpose might help the professor identify a particular student from the masses ("Oh yes, Ti Wen was the student who showed an interest in xxx subject"). – TripeHound Sep 19 '17 at 11:10
  • @D.W. Thank you! I should be clearer. I meant if such a strength is unknown to professor before (s)he is reading SoP, (s)he is not supposed to put it in LOR, right? – No One Sep 19 '17 at 22:22
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The statement of purpose is helpful to me in writing a letter of recommendation for a student because I can say things in the letter that relate to the specific plans that the student has beyond the more general plan of entering a graduate program.

For example, a student might ask me to write a letter of recommendation for admission to a PhD program in applied mathematics at University X. Knowing that the student plans to specialize in a subfield (say computational optimization) gives me the chance to write into the letter that the student is well prepared for graduate study in this area because of (whatever factors might be relevant, including specific courses taken, programming languages the student knows, etc.) Those same experiences might not be relevant if the student wants to work in a different subfield.

Another reason for me to want to see the student's statement of purpose is so that I can provide helpful advice to the student. Many students are naive and prepare draft statements that won't help and might actually hurt their chances of admission. If I've read the draft statement I can suggest changes. If it's really bad, then I might decide that I'm unwilling to write a recommendation letter for the student because it would reflect badly on me.

Ultimately it really doesn't matter why the recommender wants to see your statement- you're not in any position to demand a letter of recommendation, so you should provide whatever information the requestor asks you for.

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I think you may be underestimating the importance of item (3). A good letter of recommendation should be convincing an audience that the recommendee will be successful in the position they are applying for.

The letter writer hopefully knows some of the student's strengths, but knowing their goals is helpful in formulating the argument that strengths apply to those goals. Grad programs can be interdisciplinary, and accept interdisciplinary students, so the name of a program and knowledge about a students' undergraduate degree don't necessarily translate to graduate school.

A recommendation letter would look weak and out of sync with the student if it implies the student has different goals than what they are telling the committee - that could suggest that the letter writer doesn't actually know the student as well, or reduce the impact of their support.

Of course not every letter writer will need or want to rely on a statement of purpose, but it makes sense for a writer to request one just in case it is helpful, and they might realize from reading it that they have some other questions for the student as well.

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I don't look at students' statement of purpose when I write letters of recommendation for them.

My primary source is my one-on-one personal interactions with the student, supplemented by any records I have (incl. grades) from courses they took with me. I also ask for a transcript, to understand where their courses with me fit into their overall undergraduate experience.

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Primarily, we've looked at applications and letters before, and if we have a fairly whole view of a recommendee's package, we can identify the thin spots and patch them where we can. Having the statement of purpose makes this easier.

Also, it really helps to personalize the letter, as it makes it read less like a form letter, making it less likely to be discounted.

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Nobody knows you better than you do. You can give the recommender helpful information that s/he he may not think of on her/his own. Plus the recommender may appreciate a memory jog.

1

My practice with letters is similar to Tom Church's. The statement of purpose does not help me write them.

However, I still ask to look at them. In my experience, a good SOP won't have much of an effect on grad school admissions, but a bad one can really hurt. If I see any red flags in a student's SOP, then I warn them that it should be changed.

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