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I know there are many posts out there geared towards requesting reference letters; I have a question (as a newly established PI) about writing them. I am based in Europe, and want to support one of my former student's grad school applications in the US.

US-based profs & PI's (specifically in cognitive science/neurosciences), what kind of information do you look for in rec letters for prospective grad students? I am relatively unfamiliar with the US grad school system (it's radically different here), but I know superlative praise is called for. Just, praise in what specifically? What are qualities you look for, or other things that make a reference letter informative to you? The student has a bit of a non-traditional cv and I want to make sure I highlight things that might be relevant.

Thanks!

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For graduate school admissions, the goal of the reference letter is to recommend a candidate who you think will make an excellent future researcher. So you need to explain what the candidate has done for you, and why you think that gives the candidate the preparation she needs to succeed as a graduate student.

That means you should talk about:

  • The skill set the student has developed under your supervision.
  • Any noteworthy accomplishments (papers, awards, etc.)
  • Anything else you believe highlights the candidate's independence as a researcher, leadership skills, potential as a teacher and researcher, and so on.

Since your audience is fellow researchers in your field, effusive praise for someone who doesn't merit it is not helpful. I've known professional working relationships that soured because one PI tried to "sneak" a less-than-meritorious candidate through into a colleague's group as a postdoc.

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