Requesting a Reference Letter
In an effort to increase transparency for all my students, I’m providing my letter writing guidelines here.
Overview - General Advice
Recommendation letters come in various strengths and forms.
The weight and form of letters varies greatly depending on the opportunity. Some organizations use references to ensure that the candidates résumé (or CV) is accurate, while others use them to distinguish between a highly selective pool of candidates. I can write a standard reference letter for most students that I’ve taught. To write a strong and effective letter, I need to be able to describe you qualitatively and need to have interacted with you in multiple capacities.
It is never too early to cultivate relationships with your future letter writers. If you think you might want me to write a letter for you in the future, tell me now. Come to student hours and discuss your goals with me.
Highly Competitive Awards and PhD Programs
If your application involves a funding request to an agency to support independent research (e.g., Fulbright Scholarship, Bates Summer Research Fellowship), you will want to spend ample time developing your proposal. Very ambitious applications like a Fulbright require months of careful and consultative planning.
If you are thinking of applying for one of these programs, come by student hours to discuss your plans early. Give me, and your other potential writers, a heads up. You need strong letters for these applications. Rather than asking me to write a letter, let’s strategize who (including me) might be the best person(s) for you.
Finding the Right Referee
Consider whether I can write a strong letter for you.
- Have you fully completed at least one class with me?
- If you are a current first-time student, I will not have an adequate sense of your academic accomplishments until you complete the term.
- Indeed, it is ideal to have had two or more classes with me, as I will then be able to comment on your consistency across classes.
- Did you earn a grade of an A (ideal) or B (acceptable) in my class.
- I must have a sense of you as a person beyond the letter grade that appears in my records. Reflect back upon your own behavior and ask yourself the following:
- Did you ask questions in class?
- Did you actively participate in discussions?
- Did you make use of office hours?
- Did you find other ways to leave a lasting, positive impression?
I can only speak to and provide evidence for what I have witnessed. If you are heavily involved in your house on campus, but have never mentioned this to me, then I can’t discuss it.
Still not sure what a strong letter looks like? Here is an example of a good letter and a strong letter. The student (Jane Doe) is likely equally qualified (same grade in the class). In the strong letter, there are more concrete details as the professor has had more interactions with the student.
Don’t ask for a recommendation letter unless you’re certain you’re going to follow through with the rest of your application.
Request and Timing
I need at least three weeks to craft and submit a letter for you. Faculty schedules are busy, and I need as much lead time as possible.
When asking for a letter, tell me if you are looking for a strong letter and ask me if I have enough time to write one. If I can’t agree to write you a strong letter, this does not mean I don’t think highly of you. Instead, it means I have not spent enough time observing your work.
Note: I will only write recommendation letters when you have signed a waiver of your right to examine the letter. When I write letters of recommendation, I treat them as confidential documents whose destination is to a relevant third party (e.g., prospective employer, graduate school). By asking me for a letter, you are giving me permission to discuss your performance, both quantitatively and qualitatively, in my courses and to provide the third party with an honest accounting of your academic abilities and your promise for future success.
Once I Agree
Once I have agreed to write you a letter, complete the following.
It is helpful for me to have additional information about you when possible and when relevant, such as:
- what three strengths of yours do you think it is most important for me to highlight?
- what class(s) did you take with me and what was your grade
- if you did a project please remind me about the topic and a few details about what you did,
- an unofficial copy of your transcript,
- your résumé (or CV),
- a copy of the cover letter that will accompany your application,
- copies of writing that you have submitted for publication,
- copies of scientific posters with which you’ve been involved,
- scores from recent entrance exams (GRE, MCAT), and
- copies of personal statements that you’re submitting with your application.
Even if you have sent me this information already, please send the above information in a single email with the subject “Reference Letter Support”.
As well, click here and submit individual letter information, once for each letter that should be sent.