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I am currently seeking reference letters from professors for my masters application. It struck me that the professors that I'm close with, who know me on a more personal level (through projects, work, etc.) are not as academically renowned as some other professors who may only know me as one of the many students who got an A in their course.

I would like to know how their reference letters fare when used to apply for masters in prestigious universities. Is a more personal reference letter better, or a letter written by a more well known professor?

  • If you are applying for a job or position that requires you to justify that getting an 'A' in a subject or that you top the class in a subject, then the renowned professor's recommendation letter may be useful. If it's about your research potential, then no. – Prof. Santa Claus Oct 5 '17 at 3:01
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A letter should highlight your skills, which usually only come out when working closely with somebody. Getting a letter from a renowned professor saying that you were sitting in his lecture is no more useful than listing this course on your CV. Hence, go for the "personal" (I guess it is work-oriented, rather than saying "Woofas is a nice chap who always entertains at our pub quiz night") letter, and highlight the course with the awesome professor elsewhere.

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If the renowned scholar can give a good letter, highlighting your skills and achievements, you should opt for this option. Of course, if the renowned scholar writes a lukewarm letter, it is better to have the enthusiastic letter from a lesser known scholar.

Also, in contrast to common belief, a letter of recommendation does not necessarily have to come from someone who knows you personally. Letters come to highlight your professional achievements, not your persona.

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