Requests for Recommendation Letters

10288writing a letter

Writing recommendation letters is one of the duties of university professors.  It is an important responsibility, which I take very seriously.  I receive many requests for letters, including undergraduate students that apply for summer internships and REUs, undergraduate students that apply for graduate schools, graduate students that apply for conferences, workshops, and fellowships, graduate students that apply for postdoc positions, postdocs that apply for tenure-track positions, universities asking for letters on job candidates, assistant professors that are up for promotion for the rank of an associate professor, associate professors that are being considered for promotion to the rank of a full professor, people applying for jobs in the industry or in government labs, etc.  The busiest letter-writing season is in late Fall and early Winter, as many applications are due between November and February.   Every year, I write over 20 letters.  This number seems to be steadily increasing. Some of my colleagues report writing over 50 letters.

If you plan on asking me for a recommendation letter, please read the following guidelines.  Some of the guidelines apply only to people that belong to a specific category.  

Guidelines

  • I require at least one month notice for any letter of recommendation.   Given the large number of letters I am asked to write, if you do not provide me with enough time, it is very likely that my letter will not be submitted on time.
  • I only write letters for people that received grades A- or better in my courses.  It is better if you got an A grade in my courses.  If you received a grade of B or lower and still want me to write a letter, you should have a very good reason for your request.  For example, I received once a request from a student to write her a bad  letter.  The tricky issue was that this had to be a good bad letter…  That student wanted to change a major, but she was afraid that she will lose her external funding, and for that she asked me for a letter stating that she is not qualified to major in X but is likely to do very well in Y.  Another case was of a student that received A/B grades in all courses but mine.  That student asked me for a letter of recommendation that will explain that the C grade in my course was not so bad.
  • If a hard copy of my letter is required, please do not provide me with stamped envelopes.  Universities want to see that the letter actually arrived from a university and having it arrive in an official envelope is better.  Your tuition and fees should be more than enough to cover the mailing expenses of your recommendation letters.
  • As most applications are now electronic, I cannot upload my letter until you enter me as a reference into their system.   Please do that well ahead of the dealing or risk me submitting your letter late.
  • For electronic applications, be sure to fill out all the parts of the online application.  Information about my address, title, etc., can be found on my Contact page.


What should be submitted to me?

It is your interest to make your busy letter writer's job as easy as possible.  Please provide me with the following information.  Note that only some may apply to you.

  • CV
  • Grades transcript (if you are an undergrad).  I need to see what courses you have taken in addition to my course, and to get a general impression about you as a student.  Doing well in my course only will not be enough to get you into graduate school.
  • Everything that you will submit with your application (essays, summaries, proposals).  Good drafts are usually sufficient.  The more information I have, the better
  • If you are an undergrad applying to a special program: information about the program, a link to the webpage
  • If you have taken a course from me, please tell me what class, which semester, and what was your grade?
  • For more senior people: copies of some of your papers
  • Who else is writing for you?  This might minimize the overlap between the letters
  • Where are you applying? and when do you need the letter?
  • Is there anything in particular you would like me to address?
  • Any other information that you think is relevant and might help me write a letter


If you want to see other people's advice or requirements about recommendations, you can visit the webpages of Ravi Vakil, Keith Conrad, Megumi Harada, Rob Pollack, or Tom Roby.  The list of documents is mostly compiled from Ravi's page. 





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