Letters of Reference

Throughout your career, you will often need reference letters: for awards, for getting into schools, for jobs, or for other competitive opportunitites. It is important to pick the letter writers who know you well enough to write a strong and meaningful letter, and who feel comfortable saying only good things about you. Start interacting with a variety of professors as early in your career as possible to have solid options for letter writters. Many students, particularly undergraduates, interact with a single faculty member on a research project, but have few good options beyond that person.

Should you ask me for a letter? It depends on how much we have interacted and on what basis. In general, if you have taken only a single course from me and have not interacted with me in any other context, I will say "no". Unless there was substantial interaction in that course, it would be difficult for me to write a strong letter. If you are unsure, then ask me if I feel comfortable writing you a strong letter, and I will tell you. I do get asked to write many letters, so I apologize in advance if I must decline.

My expectations. If I am going to write you a letter, I need information from you to help me write the strongest letter I can. Specifically:

  1. Try to give me at least three weeks warning. Less time decreases the chance of me agreeing, but I understand that sometimes you find out about an opportunity at the last moment. When you ask me, be clear about the due dates and send me a reminder a few days before it is due.
  2. Send me your CV or Resume. Include any other essays your have written as part of your application, such as a personal statement or research plan. An unofficial transcript can also help.
  3. Remind me of the major interactions we have had, including courses you have taken from me, projects you have worked on with me, events you may have helped organize with me, or anything else relevant. Especially if we have had a lot of interaction, it is easy for me to accidentally omit one of those from the letter.
  4. List at least three points that you want me to include in the letter. Please do not be modest. If you have multiple letter writers asking you for such a list, I recommend that you tell the writers different topics to demonstrate your breadth. Important points to illustrate include your: Remind me of incidents where you demonstrated these traits. Note that these are all points that you should try to emphasize about yourself in any personal essay.
  5. Tell me why you want whatever it is you are applying for. If it is an application to a Ph.D. program, what do you plan to do with the degree? If it is for a fellowship, how will this additional money enhance your options? This information will help me know how to frame your letter. And please be honest; for example, if you are not sure of what you want to do with your Ph.D., I will not say that in the letter, but knowing this fact will help me give you better advice.