Letters of Recommendation
I want to write the best possible recommendation for you. It is an important part of my job, and I take it seriously. If you think I might not know you well enough, or if you are unsure about how strong a letter I can write, you should ask. I’ll tell you honestly what I can write about you. In some cases, I may suggest that you ask another professor to write for you instead.
You should know that virtually all letters of recommendation are positive. If someone is unable to write a positive letter on your behalf, they generally won’t agree to write one at all. That’s good and bad. It means that you shouldn’t worry too much about “bad” letters. But it also means that a brief, generic letter stating that you are a nice person is typically of little value.
What admissions and hiring committees look for, then, is an indication that the person writing the letter knows you reasonably well, understands the requirements of the sort of program you are applying for, and can offer specific, substantive reasons why they should admit or hire you.
For me – or anyone else – to write this sort of letter requires your help. The more information that you can provide me (within reason!) the more specific a letter I am able to write on your behalf. Below are examples of the sort of information that I find helpful; the most important stuff is at the top. Not everyone needs to provide all of this and some might not be appropriate in your case. But the more you provide, the more likely that I can write a letter that will help you achieve your goals:
- A brief summary of your experience in my courses (reminders of which semesters you were enrolled can help too). Be sure to highlight any papers or projects that you are especially proud of, or any that are relevant to the program you are applying for. A short resume that lists your educational background, achievements, activities, work and travel experience, and career goals may also be helpful.
- A brief description of the program or scholarship. If you are applying to a graduate program, tell me what type of program it is, what field, what degree you are seeking, etc.
- A brief statement regarding your interest in the program. Tell me why you selected the program and what you want to achieve there. This is generally included in your personal statement to the program.
- The due date of the letter.
- A list of other points you would like me to try to work into the letter.
Once you give this information to me (at least the first two items), along with any relevant forms. Make sure that you complete all appropriate sections and sight the disclosure or non-disclosure statement on the forms. (Note that you are not required to sign the confidentiality waiver, but admissions committees may place greater value in “blind” letters that in a letter written with the knowledge that the student may see it at some point.)
I prefer at least a couple weeks to write your letter. If you need it more quickly, I’ll do my best to accommodate you if I can.
I strongly encourage you to e-mail me a few days before the application due date to confirm that the materials have been mailed. And keep me informed: I would love to hear whether you are hired, admitted, receive the scholarship, etc. .