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Letters of Reference


I am asked to write a large number of letters of reference. Ordinarily, I accept requests to recommend current and former students, and I am always eager to help my students succeed. However, please consider the following guidelines before requesting a letter: 

1. I will write a letter only for students that I know fairly well. Or rather, I will probably write a letter for a student about whom I know very little, but if I don't know much about a student, it is very difficult to offer a strong and detailed appraisal. I think, in general, students should request letters from the professors that know them the best. 

2. Give me time. Often I can work on a letter of recommendation right away. Other times I cannot. The proper etiquette is to request a letter at least a month in advance of the application due date. 

3. Be prepared. That helps me to prepare a stronger and more persuasive letter. Please provide me with all of the following: your transcripts (when applicable), a list of the courses you've taken with me (and the dates that you took them), the names of any term papers that you wrote under my supervision, your cover letter (when applicable), the name of the organization, job, or grant to which you're applying, the date that the letter is due, the exact location (email or address) to which the letter (or emailed attachment) should be sent, and any other relevant information about the organization, job, or grant that could be of use in the letter writing process.

4. I will write a letter only for students that I wish to recommend, so if I've agreed to write one, one can assume that it will be positive in tone. That said, some of the letters I write are stronger than others. Please know that I am always honest, but that I invariably support the interests of my students. It probably goes without saying that I am able to write stronger letters for students a) that I know well, and b) that have done well in my courses. I cannot lie or exaggerate my knowledge of a student's merits, and thus a letter is only as strong as my knowledge of and experience with the requester. 

5. Stay in communication during the process. At times, a requester and I will need to email back and forth and I appreciate prompt replies. Please know that I take letter-writing seriously and that I enjoy it and see it as a crucial part of my job. It is not a burden in any way, but it certainly eases the process when students consider these guidelines.