Reference Letters

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 classes.

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 recommendation.

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 effectively.

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 letter: In addition: Second, I need answers to these questions for each separate application you're submitting:

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 drawing close.