Asking for a letter of recommendation?

One of the joys of my job as a professor is to support my students in pursuing their educational and professional aspirations. Writing letters of recommendation and serving as a reference for former and current students is thus an enjoyable part of my job – you don’t need to feel nervous about asking me for a letter! 

Here are some guidelines that I encourage you to follow, so that you give me what I need in order to best assess whether I can write for you and, if I agree to write a letter, I can do it well.

Can I write you a strong letter?

If you are applying to study abroad, generally if you have taken a class with me and done steady work – normally earning a B+, attending class regularly, and turning in work in a timely way – I will be able to recommend you, since those letters don’t require me to know too much detail about your scholarly work and performance.

If you are applying for a non-academic job, similar criteria apply. Please remember that it is frequently better to have a reference for jobs from someone who has supervised you at a previous job, because I will not be able to refer to anything but your academic performance.

If you are applying for a healthcare professional school or graduate school, I require that I be very  familiar with your work. This means that (i) you should have taken and completed at least 2 courses with me, (ii) you should have gotten at least an A in these courses, and (iii) we should have had reasonably in-depth conversations about your academic work in office hours. This will allow me to give a detailed and strong reference letter that will enable you to compete with other strong applicants.

When should you contact me?

Generally, you should submit everything that I will need to write you a strong letter at least 4 weeks before it is due. This means that you should ask me if I will be able to write a letter 7-8 weeks ahead of the due date. That way, if I am not able to write a recommendation for you you can approach other professors. I am occasionally able to meet last-minute requests, and it is fine to ask me for a letter with less lead-time, but you should not count on it.

What materials should you send?

After I have agreed to write for you (even if you have already sent me some of this in your initial request), please send the following:

  1. A list of the programs or funding opportunities to which you’re applying, noting the deadlines for each and whether there are specific forms that I will need to fill out.
  2. Your draft cover letter, and statement of purpose or research proposal.
  3. A list of the classes you took with me, when they were, and what marks you received in them. If you have copies of papers you wrote for me along with my comments on them that is useful, too.
  4. Copies of your unofficial transcripts.
  5. A short summation of your work outside of the classroom – activities, achievements, passions – that could help me write the parts of many funding and grad school applications that increasingly ask references to speak to the “leadership capacity” of students.
  6. Anything else that you think will help me write the best possible letter for you.

I also welcome reminders as the deadlines approach to make sure that I’ve submitted the letters in a timely way.