Whom should I ask for a letter of recommendation?
November 16, 2013 1:52 PM   Subscribe

I'm a liberal arts major who wants to study Nutrition Science. I know that a letter of recommendation from a community college teacher generally doesn't carry as much weight as a letter from someone teaching at a university. Unfortunately, I have only taken science classes at the community college level. Is my case an exception?

About 5 years ago, I earned a B.A. in a liberal arts field. Now I want to apply to a master's program in Nutrition Science.

I understand that when it comes to letters of recommendation, the status of the recommender counts for a fair amount. My ideal recommender would probably be a science professor at my alma mater. (It's a respectable private university, though a long way from Ivy League.)

Unfortunately, there is no one who fits that description, as I didn't take a single science or health-related class at my school. (I took a few science classes for GE requirements, but those were at a community college.)

Therefore, I am thinking about requesting a letter from a biology professor at the community college where I am currently taking 200-level prereqs for the graduate program. Am I correct in thinking that such a letter could help persuade the admissions people that my liberal arts background won't stop me from transitioning to science?

Or should I follow the conventional wisdom, and go with two letters of recommendation from professors who taught my major at my alma mater?
posted by aphorist to Education (10 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Letters Of RecommendAtion tell The Prospective school What Kind Of Student You are. Go Ahead And Get One From The Cc Instructor.
posted by brujita at 2:04 PM on November 16, 2013

So long as the Community College professor is a tenured/tenure track professor, go with him. If he is an adjunct or a graduate student then it is probably not going to be that persuasive, and I'd suggest two from your college plus this letter.
posted by Pineapplicious at 2:08 PM on November 16, 2013

Best answer: How many letters of recommendation do you need? You must submit the number that the application calls for.

You should definitely ask your current professor to write you a letter, and make sure you work very hard in that course. You would ideally want letters from professors in the subject you're planning to study, but letters from (for example) English professors that attest to your admirable work ethic and analytic sophistication would be good for your chances.

You have to work with what you have. My advice would be to get a letter from your current bio professor and two from whoever you had the best rapport with or whoever you did your best work for in your BA. What I suggest you don't do is only submit one letter if the program application asks for more.

Good luck! And remember, if you're not going to be the strongest applicant you could be this year, it might be worth considering putting your application off til next year: you can take other courses in the meantime to build your academic CV, garner other potential letter-writers and ultimately perhaps get into a better program. Please feel free to send me a Memail if you feel inclined.
posted by clockzero at 2:11 PM on November 16, 2013

It really doesn't matter what school the recommender teaches at.
posted by discopolo at 2:14 PM on November 16, 2013

Best answer: I would absolutely go with the CC professor. Honestly, I find it hard to imagine that fine gradations of quality in your letters of rec are going to matter much to your application. In my experience, these kinds of letters can be the deciding factor in an application in exactly one of two ways:

1) If the professor in question is super-famous/best friends with someone on the admissions committee, and has mentored you closely enough that he'll probably follow up on the letter by picking up the phone and calling in a favor on your behalf


2) You are a human nightmare and the letter hints at this or outright says so.

Otherwise, they're just boxes to check; grades, experience, etc. matter 100x more. Find the professor who has seen you do the best, most relevant work, get the letter, and don't stress too much. It's the fact that you've done well in upper level science classes (which your transcript will show) more than the name brand value of whatever random professor (either at a CC or a 4 year school) that matters.

Good luck!
posted by pretentious illiterate at 2:16 PM on November 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

The reference's position on the academic totem pole often means less than people think. If you're applying to Harvard or Yale, then yeah, you might be concerned, but many graduate programs are simply interested in seeing a useful testimonial from someone who has actually interacted with you.

And it wasn't quite clear from your question, but as others have said above, absolutely don't send fewer letters than you need--you'll either be circular-filed or sent a warning letter. HR often won't let departments consider incomplete applications.
posted by thomas j wise at 2:56 PM on November 16, 2013 [2 favorites]

Go to the prof you feel most comfortable with -- the one who was your mentor. IMHO, the difference in academic specialty doesn't matter much. What matters is that someone who's on your side is writing about your intellectual abilities.
posted by KRS at 4:40 PM on November 16, 2013

Best answer: I do graduate admissions. I want a letter from a professor who has taught you recently and who can speak to your qualifications for our program, not just general smarts and good character. If the professor who can do that is at the community college, that's the letter I want to see.
posted by escabeche at 6:01 PM on November 16, 2013 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks for the answers.

I got the impression that the "reference's position on the academic totem pole" was a major factor from reading previous AskMeFi answers like this and this. I'm glad to hear that that is not necessarily the case.

@thomas j wise: To clarify, the program only asks for 2 letters, and I was planning to send at least that many.
posted by aphorist at 4:52 PM on November 17, 2013

For future reference, some graduate programs will care a ton about the reference's position on the totem pole, for example when applying to elite PhD programs.

Many other forms of graduate school will not care as much about that sort of thing. I suspect a masters in nutrition is the sort of program where reputation of the reference writer will not matter as much.
posted by vegetableagony at 5:29 PM on November 28, 2013

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