Students occasionally ask me to write reference letters for graduate
school, scholarships, job applications, or other purposes. I am happy to
write these kinds of letters. This page has some information about how
to get me write a reference letter for you.
Step 1: Choose a letter writer wisely.
Before you ask me (or anyone else) to write a reference letter for you, I
suggest thinking a bit about what that letter would actually say. In most
cases, the folks that read these kinds of letters will already have access
to your transcript, including details about how well you did in your
Therefore, if I don't know you well enough to write anything more than
"So and so took a class from me and got a good grade," then my letter
probably won't help you. I can write this kind of letter for you if you
insist —I realize that occasionally there aren't other good choices
for letter writers— but keep in mind that such a letter is not
generally what employers or selection committees are hoping to see.
Note also that I am not willing to provide reference letters directly to
the person being recommended. This is important to me because
recommendations letters are, in my opinion, a useless form of writing
unless they are seen as allowing a candid evaluation of the applicant. If
you are interested in a program that nominally asks for a reference letter
submitted by you, it may be worthwhile to ask if there exists some way for
the letter to be submitted by the recommender instead. In my experience,
this is nearly always possible.
For a similar reason, when completing your part of a graduate school
application, you should choose to waive your right to access the completed
Step 2: Ask me early.
It's rare for me to decline a request to write a letter. However,
because it often takes several hours to write a good letter, the more
advance notice you can give me, the more likely it is that I'll be able
to accept and to give your reference letter the time it deserves.
On rare occasions, I am asked by universities or employers to submit
references for students that did not discuss these references with me ahead
of time. I tend to ignore those requests, since I don't have the student's
permission, nor do I have the right context to be able to complete them
Step 3: Send me the details.
If I agree to write your reference, I will need some details. I prefer
to have all of the relevant details in one single unified email.
First, I'll need some information about you to help me compose the
- When did we meet?
- In what capacities have we interacted?
- What courses have you taken from me? What were your grades?
- Is there anything in particular that I should mention?
Second, I need answers to these questions for each separate application
- If you have a resume or a CV, please attach a copy to the email.
- If the application requires an essay or personal statement, please attach a copy to the email.
- You are welcome to write a draft of your own letter if you like.
I'll likely modify it and ensure that it accurately reflects my own
opinions, but this can make things faster for me.
- What are you applying for?
- What are the published selection criteria? (You might be tempted to
say that there are none, but this is rarely true. There is almost always
some information about what sort of applicant is being
- What is the physical address, including a street name, a
state, and a zip code? (You might be tempted to say there is no physical
address. This is rarely true.) A properly-formatted formal letter will
generally include this information, even if it is submitted
- Are there any specific reasons that you are applying? What makes you
a good fit?
- To whom should my letter be addressed? (Most programs don't list a
specific person, but for those that do, it's good to be specific.)
- How do I submit my recommendation?
- What is the deadline? Keep in mind that the deadline for submitting
your application may be different from the deadline for the reference
Step 4: Remind me.
I can be forgetful sometimes, and I have many different responsibilities.
Therefore, it's in your best interest to remind me about your reference
letter repeatedly, until you get confirmation that I've finished it.
Your application is probably extremely important to you —If it
isn't, then why should I spend time helping you with it?— so this
is no time to be sheepish. You are welcome to send messages daily (or,
even better, to find more creative ways to remind me) if the deadline is