Letter of Recommendation
I absolutely love seeing my students land in top tier graduate programs and fancy new jobs. Nothing makes me happier than seeing you all shine. That said, when I write a letter of reference, I’m putting my professional reputation on the line to vouch for another person. So asking me to write you a letter means that you’re also going to take your professional duties seriously. Here are my guidelines for reference letters.
For Whom I will Write Letters:
I will only write academic letters of reference for students who scored a B or higher in my classes. Note that it is not in your interest for me to write for you if you didn’t fare well in my course. That said, if I know you as a person and you’re applying for a job that requires a non-academic reference (character, collegiality, professionalism), I’m happy to vouch for you.
Also, you might be worried that I won’t remember you, and so I may not be able to write you a letter. Incoming students, let me teach you a trick on that: while you are in my class, at some point send me an email about something that’s going on in our course, about who you are as a person, and/or about why you’re interested in my class. Make it clean, crisp, and well structured. I’ll likely hit reply on my phone and say something like “so happy you’re engaged, and thanks for bringing this up in the classroom!” Then I’ll delete it and forget about it. But you should keep it as our core correspondence thread. Then, when you reach out to me again in a year to tell me about an internship you just landed, I can scroll down and remember who you are. I’ll reply, “so happy for you!” and maybe delete the email again. But you should keep it. So then, 5 years later when you are no longer my student and you need me to write a letter for you, you can hit reply on our old thread and I will remember you, and feel like I’ve been around for the journey. Do this with all of your professors. It’s reference letter writing insurance.
How to ask for a letter:
First, you’ll ask me for a letter no less than three weeks before your deadlines. I travel extensively for my research, so it’s better if you give me even more notice to avoid disappointments.
Second, your request email will make it easy for me to remember who you are (use the technique above if possible), remind me what you did and how you fared in my class, outline exactly what you need from me, and offer to provide me with the materials I need to write the letter. Note that I will only write 8 letters for undergraduate students per year; PhD students are unlimited.
Third, once I agree to write for you, I need you to provide me with the following information in a clear and concise manner: a) your CV; b) your contribution to my classroom or other defining features of our interaction; c) what you wrote about for my class, how you fared in that assignment, and your final grade; d) 3-5 bullet points of awesome things about you that aren’t reflected only in your grades but that you want the committee to know (e.g. language skills, volunteer work, field experience, extra-curricular, etc.); e) if applicable, any special considerations that you wish the search committee would know that could explain an outlier year (e.g. dealing with serious illness, etc.) that I could incorporate in the letter to help mitigate concerns.
Fourth, you will carefully fill out the forms with both your name and contact information AND my name and contact information (unless this is not possible on a web-based form), so that I don’t have to spend my entire day filling out forms. Please ensure this is done perfectly. Also, I much prefer to submit online letters, but if you need a paper letter mailed, please provide both the printed forms and the pre-addressed envelope label. Our department will cover the postage, but you are responsible for the forms and address label.
Finally, I prefer to have you ask me for all of your letters of reference at once. This is also better for you because if they come in staggered, I might miss one. Again, please give me ample notice so that I can schedule to complete this work for you.
Note: my PhD advisor lifted most of these guidelines from one of his professors (with attribution!), and I therefore followed tradition and borrowed parts of the Book of Steve Saideman in writing this guide. See his much sharper version here.