How to Ask for a Recommendation
One of a professor's duties is to write recommendation letters for
students, usually for fellowships or grad-school applications. This
Web page is intended to make that task easier for me by outlining your
own role in the process.
There are a number of useful general principles for recommendations.
Some will apply to anybody you ask to write a letter; others are
personal preferences of mine:
- ASK IN ADVANCE. Writing a good letter takes
more than a few minutes, so a busy person must plan ahead. If
you ask for a letter less than 3 weeks before its due date, it
might not get written in time.
- Ask whether I can write you a good letter, not whether I'm
willing to write one. It's my job to write letters, so I'm
essentially always willing (though in rare circumstances I
might ask you to
try to find somebody else because of workload issues). But I
might not be able to write you a strong letter. That might
not be personal; perhaps I don't know you well (such as having
had you in only one class). You should choose references who
explicitly say they can write you a strong letter.
- Up front, give a maximally complete list of who you want
letters to go to. Usually, one letter
can serve for all purposes, so that I can just write it once
and send copies everywhere with only mail-merge changes.
However, it's much easier to do that if I know right away what
the letter is going to be for. In particular, if you're going
to be applying separately for both grad school and
fellowships, it helps to know that ahead of time. (Once the
generic letter is written, though, it's very easy to send it
to new places, so don't be shy about adding a last-minute
application to your list.)
- Please sort the list by deadline date; in particular I need
to know the earliest deadline because that's the one that
drives the majority of the work.
- Give organized information. See below for an example of what
I wish everybody would do. The better things are organized,
the more time I'll have to actually write stuff.
- And in general, make it easy for me. I individualize every
letter, which means I need to know:
- The name of the department or program you're
- Ideally, whom the letter should be addressed to
(by default I'll write "To Whom It May Concern"
but it's better to write "Dear Dr. Jones").
- How/where to send the recommendation (e-mail
address? Physical mailing address? Web site? Do
I have to initiate things or will I get an e-mail?)
- The mailing address of the program—even if
the application is electronic, it's more
businesslike to include a proper address.
A mailing address is especially important
if you're applying in a non-CS field. I
have the addresses for most CS programs, but it
takes a significant amount of time for me to look
up the addresses of various math, physics,
- (Personal) Paper vs. electronic? Electronic
recommendation sites used to be painfully clumsy, but that has
changed. Electronic forms are now preferred in most cases.
If you have a choice, pick the electronic option.
- (Personal) Do not give me envelopes
and stamps, with
one exception. I write letters on
department letterhead, put them in department envelopes, and
stick them in the outgoing bin to be stamped and mailed. If
you give me a stamped and addressed envelope, I will trash
it, which I hate because it wastes your money. The only
exception is if I am supposed to return a sealed envelope to
you for inclusion with the application and
you won't be on campus. In that case, it helps if you give me
a SASE big
enough to hold the sealed recommendations so that I can mail
them to you.
- Do give me deadlines and mailing addresses so that I can
generate the envelopes on time. Tell me whether the deadline
is "must mail by" or "must receive by." (Personal) I
prefer the mailing
addresses in electronic text form, one line per address line,
just as they would appear on the envelope.
- (Personal) Bug me as the deadline approaches. It's
easy to forget about somebody or to miss the deadline. Yes,
I'm supposed to be a responsible person, and I try very hard
to keep everything straight. But mistakes happen. If you
remind me two weeks before, one week before, and two days
before the deadline, I won't have an excuse for messing up.
When I send the letters, I'll e-mail you just to get you off
my back, and then you'll be sure I did it.
- Give me information about yourself. Even though I know you
(and hopefully know you well!), I may forget a random detail
that would make the letter far better. The more stuff I have, the
more chances I'll write a great letter. You should include
the following information at a minimum:
I might not use some of that stuff, but at least you're giving me the
opportunity to consider it. This is a time to be arrogant! :-)
- How long I've known you (years and months)
- My relationship to you (instructor, advisor, research
advisor, supervisor on staff, etc.)
- What courses you've taken from me, when you took
them, and what grades you got
- What you did in your research or Clinic with me, if
- Copies of any papers you wrote for me
- Your overall and major GPAs
- A draft of your personal statement
- A resume
- A "brag sheet" to remind me about special
accomplishments and outside activities. Here's a
sample of an excellent
- A copy of your latest transcript
- Anything else you can think of that might help!
Sample of the Ideal Packet
The best packet I ever got from a student looked like this. Note that
it's sorted by due date so that I'll be sure to get everything done on
||Where to Find Form
||What to Do With
Once It's Done
| UC Berkeley || 12/15/02 || In packet attached
|| Mail to address listed on form
| NYU || 12/15/02 || In packet attached
|| Return to me
| Harvard || 1/2/03 || Online. You will receive an e-mail.
|| Info in the e-mail
| UC Irvine || 1/15/03 || http://www.rgs.uci.edu/grad/...
|| On site listed
| If you have any questions, e-mail me at
firstname.lastname@example.org or call me at 555-1212.