This webpage contains advice for people asking for a letter of recommendation from me or someone like me. It was written quickly, and suggestions to improve it are very welcome. (Thanks to the many people who have made suggestions!)

You likely have a lot of things on your mind right now, and this is the last thing you want to worry about, but this deals with a central part of your application.

Letter-writing is one of my most important duties.

The following statement is rather obvious, but a reasonable number of people seem not to have considered it: it is in your interest to make your busy letter writer's job as easy as possible.

For example, I will likely write letters for about 40 or more people this year, most during the fall, around my other duties. (I kept track of letters in a recent year. Sixty people asked for or needed letters: 1 high school, 8 at the undergrad level, 17 at the grad level, 11 at the postdoc level, 8 at the tenure track level, and 15 more senior.)

Please give me as much notice as possible so I can write as detailed a letter as I would like. At least a month is reasonable. If you ask me on less than a month's notice, you should expect the letter to be submitted late. If you give me too little notice, your letter will necessarily be rushed, which does no one any good. Sending me your support materials a week before the deadline is not a good idea.

(The number of letters varies widely by individual. If you need a letter on short notice, you should strongly consider asking someone else.)

You want to help your recommender write as detailed a letter as possible. Here are things that would help me. Only some may apply to you. I will likely only start writing your letter once I have all the information I would like --- there is always someone else's letter I can write first.

  • CV/resume
  • transcript (if you are an undergrad)
  • everything you will submit with your application (e.g. personal essay, research summary, research proposal); very good drafts will do in a pinch. Corollary: finish your part of the application early.
  • if you are an undergrad applying to a special program of some sort: information about the program you are applying to (e.g. the official program announcement), and what they are looking for
  • if you have taken a course from me: please tell me what class, which quarter you took it, and what your grade was. Note: if you did not get an A from me, you will likely wish to ask someone else for a letter instead.
  • if relevant (only for more senior people, and occasionally grad students and even the odd undergrad): copies of papers (electronic links suffice)
  • Who else is writing you a letter (so I can say things that might not otherwise be covered)?
  • Where are you applying (e.g. list of schools)? Are there any that deserve special mention for some reason?
  • When do you need the letter by (e.g. when should it be in the mail)? How do I get it to where it needs to go? (On a related note: it is the responsibility of the applicant to keep reminding the writer about the deadline. I've been very good in the past, but with many letters, there's always the chance something bad might happen.)
  • Is there anything in particular you would like me to address? (Are there particular theorems/papers you hope I'll write about? Are there theorems/papers that others will say more about?) Are there particular qualities you would prefer that I discuss?
  • any other information that might have a chance of helping me
    If you want to see other peoples' advice or requirements about recommendations, you can visit the pages of Keith Conrad, Megumi Harada, Rob Pollack, or Tom Roby. (I got these links from Keith Conrad's page.)
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