Please read this before you ask me for a letter. You may also find my advice on grad school admissions useful when considering your “letter strategy” more generally before applying to grad school — at the M.A. or Ph.D. levels.
Here are a few guidelines to determine:
- Whether I will write you a recommendation letter; and
- What I need from you in case I write a letter for you;
Will I write you a recommendation letter?
If you ask me for a recommendation letter, there are three possible outcomes.
- First, if I know you well; if you have taken one or more courses with me, preferably including at least one seminar; if you have worked for me as an RA or TF for a few months or more; if I have supervised your senior thesis; or if you have otherwise interacted with me in any other capacity that enables me to assess your intellectual potential; then I will be delighted to write you a letter.
- Second, if I don’t know you at all; if you have never taken a course with me; if we have never interacted in any capacity that enables me to assess your potential; then I will not write a letter for you because I could not write a strong letter — and a weak letter has a high opportunity cost and may end up hurting your application.
- Third, and this is the murky case, if we have interacted somewhat; if you have, for instance, taken a lecture course with me, but we never really met; or if we have talked briefly once but I cannot in any way assess your potential other than the grade you got on that course; then I will be willing to write you a letter but you should understand that my letter will not be particularly strong and will therefore probably not be a plus in your application. (This is why it is so important that you develop a strong working relationship with one or, preferably, more faculty during your college years — see my advice for undergrads on this point.)
I will let you know which of the three situations you’re in when you ask for the letter, so you should always feel free to ask. In case you are in situation three, I will probably suggest that you try to get someone who knows you better to write a letter for you, but I will be willing to write you a letter — with the caveat above — if you can’t find anyone else.
What do I need from you
First of all, time. If you want a letter from me, please ask at least one month before the deadline by which the letter will be due. More is better; I keep track and will not forget to do it just because you asked much in advance. This is crucial during “letter season” (i.e., from October to December), when everyone you know is applying to grad or law school.
Once I have agreed to write a letter for you, I will need the following from you at least three weeks before the deadline:
- Your Curriculum Vitae;
- Hard data: unofficial versions of your transcripts (including GPAs) and any standardized test scores relevant for the application at hand;
- A list of institutions to which you want the letter to be sent, including the deadline by which each letter has to be in. In case the letter is for a job or internship, send me a description of the position — I need to know what I am recommending you for;
- Other relevant materials included in your application, such as your statement of purpose or research;
- A list of bullet points about our previous interaction that you think are germane to the application — this is particularly useful if our interaction was in the distant past, i.e., more than a year ago.
If you are taking a course with me or working with my in any other capacity and feel that you may need a letter in the somewhat distant future — say, next year or two years from now — please let me know so I can write a first draft while my impressions are fresh.
Important note: Whenever there is a form — online or on paper — that must accompany the letter, do fill in as much of my personal information (position, department, contacts, etc.) as possible.
Comments are welcome below.