I am happy to write letters of recommendation for students who have excelled in my classes. Because so many students request letters each semester, I have prepared the following guidelines. Please read the entire post before emailing me. I clearly recall having no idea how or who to ask for recommendations, or what would come of them. I hope this post offers you insight about how letters of recommendation work and the labor behind them in order to find the right writers to support your future goals while doing so with respect and grace.
WHO TO ASK
Select a professor who has already graded you and, if possible, has taught you for multiple courses. Make sure to visit that faculty’s office hours and get to know them and let them get to know you, your interests, and your dreams and goals. Interactions in and outside of the class go a long way in writing a really thoughtful cover letter that brings the applicant to life on the page. Basically, the better a faculty member knows you, the likelier they, she, or he will be to support you with a letter and the stronger the letter will be. Every student needs letters of recommendation each semester so that you should carefully select the faculty member who is right for you to write these letters. If you need advice on this matter, ask the Career Development Center and/or your advisor. I generally prefer to write recommendations for students who earned at least an B+ in my course. An A- or better is preferable. If you find yourself grueling over this with friends–the professor who knows you best gave you a B- during a particularly rough semester–then ask the professor directly what she, he, or they think. Since most institutions ask professors to rank students against all others they have taught, a student with a grade of B- or lower in my class usually will be better served by looking elsewhere for a recommendation. I will certainly write letters for students who completed or are on target for completion of independent study research, senior projects, or senior theses. The depths at which we have spoken and my clear understanding of your mind’s inner workings allow me–and other faculty as well–to clearly craft a letter that sings the song of you. My letter will be much stronger if you have already completed my class, since I will have your final paper to base it on; when necessary, however, I will write letters for students who are maintaining an A- or higher during the current semester. I only write letters for students who have waived their right of access. I will not provide you with a copy of your letter. Admissions committees and most employers generally disregard non-confidential letters, so you will be better served by submitting only confidential letters of recommendation.
WHEN TO ASK
Ask at least three weeks in advance. In special or urgent situations, I may be able to work with less time, but I will be able to compose a more detailed and persuasive letter if I don’t have to write it in a rush. The months of October through March are a particularly busy time in terms of recommendations, so if you need a letter during those months it is especially important that you give me as much advance notice as possible.
HOW TO ASK
You should provide the following materials at least three weeks in advance in one email per school, program, internship, or position: 1) State the due dates for this letter; 2) Copies of your papers and/or exams from your classwork with me (ideally with my markings on them); 3) If you are applying to a school or program that requires a formal application letter, include this statement of purpose; 4) If your application requires no formal letter, explain to me in one or two paragraphs (at most) why you feel this specific position or program interests you and what makes it well suited to you; 5) An up-to-date resume or CV; 6) An autobiographical statement no more than one or two paragraphs that tells me where you are from, what you’ve accomplished so far (clubs, sports, extracurriculars, awards, GPA–whatever stands out), what interests you in general, and what you hope to do with your future; 6) A description of the program to which you are applying, including your future research agenda in a graduate program, or the unit in an internship or job; 7) Provide the name, addresses, specific instructions, and links to the program or position, along with all necessary forms; 8) Include any special instructions for how individual schools or positions want to receive their letters. Most graduate schools want these letters sent directly to them (this is also my preference), but some want them sent back to you (signed across the seal); 9) If you have already graduated and are returning for letters, follow the above directions and also include a longer autobiographical statement of about a page about what you have been doing since graduation, and why you are seeking a change in career path. If you do invite me to write a letter, it is much easier to write letters for you in the future. The first letter takes some time to compose–hours, really–so that it would be much easier for me to craft them in the future–an hour or so or less. I save the best for last: whether you land the job or get into graduate school or not, tell me about the outcome! We may write many of these letters but we do with care and hope for each of you to achieve what you set out to do. Let us share in both your successes, and your let downs!