Letters of Reference

Throughout your career, you will often need letters of reference: for awards, for getting into schools, for jobs, or for other competitive opportunitites. It is important to pick the proper letter writers who know you well enough to write a meaningful letter, and who feel comfortable saying only good things about you. I highly recommend that you start interacting with professors as early in your careers as possible to have solid options for letter-writters when the time comes. 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 a remarkable amount of 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 requirements for writing a letter. If I am going to write you a letter, I will want a lot of information from you to help me write the strongest letter I can. Specifically:

  1. Give me at least three weeks warning, if at all possible. Less time decreases the chance of me agreeing to write the letter, but I understand that sometimes you find out about an opportunity at the last moment. When you ask me, be clear about the earliest due dates for the letter and send me a reminder a few days before it is due. If you need hard copies of the letter, please provide me with addressed and stamped envelopes (self-adhesive preferred).
  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 types of interactions we have had, including what courses you have taken from me, what projects you have worked on for me, what events you may have helped organize with me, or anything else relevant. You would be amazed how easy it is to forget one of those. When possible, please also remind me of dates (even just the year) so that I can be as specific as possible in my letter, which is always stronger.
  4. Give me a list of at least three points that you would like me to include in the letter (more is good!) Please do not be modest; I want to know what you feel is most important for me to describe. If you have multiple letter writers asking you for such a list, I recommend that you tell the writers different topics so that not all of your letters read the same. Some important points to illustrate include your: knowledge, creativity, critical thinking, rigor, technical skills, leadership, teamwork, written and verbal communication, initiative, enthusiasm, reliability, maturity, and your basic social skills. I would like you to remind me of incidents where you have demonstrated some of these traits. These are also 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 best position your letter. While your target audience might have specific expectations of your goals, I do not, so be honest. 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.