Advice on Recommendation Letters

I have a standard litany regarding recommendation letters that I regularly recite for my advisees just before their junior year.

If you plan to apply for graduate school, you will definitely need letters, and you will want letters from faculty members rather than TA's, internship supervisors, etc. Towards this end, you should pick the classes that you really enjoy (hopefully you are enjoying at least some of your electives) and get to know the professor. Go to office hours. Go beyond the classwork. Have fun.

If you are still a year or two away from applying to schools, but think that you may want a letter from someone, ask them to send a letter to the Career Center rather than waiting. We have a lot of students, and it's hard to write a good letter about someone you haven't seen in two years. Obviously, if you decide to join the person's research group, you should wait and get a better letter later.

Do research if you can; usually we like people to start in their junior year so that they spend a year ramping up and then do something interesting in their senior year, but you may be able to find projects even if you start later in your career. Again, talk to the professors who teach the classes you enjoy. Independent study classes are a good way to start. Note that letters from research advisors are stronger than purely academic letters, as they imply that you have some clue about what you are getting yourself into by applying to graduate school.

Recommendation Letters from Me

My general philosophy on recommendation letters is that I am obliged to write them for any student with whom I have had a reasonable amount of contact, so I will almost definitely agree to write a letter for you if you have taken a class with me, worked on a research project with me, or been my advisee. However, if I do not know you very well, the letter will be little more than a form letter. Also, if you give me less than two or three weeks' notice, I may simply not find time to write your letter at all.

I will send a letter to up to four places. After four copies, I will make one more copy of the letter and send it to the Career Center, from which you can order as many copies as you like. Obviously, I prefer to send one copy rather than five, so a single Career Center copy is best if you know that you'll want five or more.

You must provide several things if you want a good letter. First, I need a statement of what you want to do and why you want to do it. Typically, you write one of these anyway, so just give me a copy. A resume/CV doesn't hurt either; neither does a transcript. You should make a point of showing up at my office (possibly when you drop off the materials) and telling me who you are if you suspect that I might not recognize you in a crowd. Please don't ask for an appointment to show up; just show up and say hi.

For each letter, you must do the following:

If you apply to a school that does not allow you to waive your right to access, I may send a different version of the letter to that school--tough luck for them.

Finally, I will not write Hertz Foundation letters or other online letters that require specialized attention. Graduate school applications are usually set up reasonably well (e.g., Berkeley, Stanford, and MIT have good online systems), but some applications essentially force the recommendation writer to write an entirely different letter with user-unfriendly browser cruft.

Here's an amusing letter that I came across while reading...

Charles Norman, "E. E. Cummings: A Biography," E. P. Dutton & Co., New York, New York, 1967 (paperback edition), pp. 59-60.

The following letter of introduction written for E.E. Cummings by Amy Lowell, a poet and the sister of the President of Harvard, one of whose poems Cummings had cited in his Commencement speech the previous year. Original citation information is included.

"In his biography of her, Professor Damon gives the form she used in addressing the editors of the Century, Scribner's Magazine, and Craftsman:

'I am taking the liberty of giving a letter of introduction to you to a young Harvard graduate, named Erstline [sic] Cummings. He has been specializing in English I believe, and had one of the Commencement parts last year, in which I hear he was very brilliant. He is extremely interested in all forms of the New Poetry, but I do not think he confines himself to that branch of literature. He is very anxious to get something to do on a magazine, and although I have very little hope that you will have anything to give him, perhaps you would be so kind as to see him for a few minutes and give him some excellent advice. At any rate, I hope that I am not trespassing upon a very slight acquaintance; if I am, pray ignore both this note and the letter he will bring you.'

It is not likely that her notes were ignored, or that the letters Cummings bore would have been. He simply did not present them."

I suggest that you not put me in a position to need to write something similar for you (but feel free to quote my poetry and/or papers in your commencement speech, and let me know about it)...

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