A philosopher in Europe writes:
I wonder if I could persuade you to write a blog post that would help European letter writers do well by their students? (Please don't identify me though - not least because I don't want my student to be able to identify herself.)
I recently wrote my first round of letters for the US PhD applications market, for a student whom I rate very highly. Since I am working at a major European university, the standard of students that I teach is outstanding; and among this cohort the student for whom I wrote is one of the best. I thought that I had represented this fact accurately when, in the sections of the reference letters asking me to rank students relative to their cohort, I rated her in the top 10%-25% for most of the areas asked (and in top 1% for one or two others). Given that our graduate students are likely as good as those at most major US universities, I thought this was high praise indeed. However, an American colleague has recently told me that any ranking outside the top 5% is generally likely to kill the application of a student.
This strikes me as both crazy and unfair, but since I want to do the best by my students, I'll reluctantly play whatever games it takes to see that they get the chances they deserve. For the benefit of non-US letter writers, though, perhaps it would be good to canvas opinions here. How highly must students be ranked to be considered by strong programs? And what percentages of competitive applications are described as being in the top 1% of even very strong MA or undergraduate programs?
Some guidance here would be very much appreciated!
What do readers think? If you post anonymously, at least indicate something about your experience in these matters (e.g., faculty member at a PhD program, recommender, etc.).