How to Get a Good Reference Letter (From Me)

I get many requests from undergraduate students for a reference letter to accompany their application for a job, scholarship, graduate school, etc. Every letter takes me literally hours to write and so I can't possibly say "yes" to every request. Even though I'm very busy, one of the most rewarding apects of my job is interacting with keen and bright students, and helping them to succeed in their academic and career aspirations.

With this in mind, I will be happy to write a letter for you but only if I think it will actually help your application, which normally means that:

AND EITHER Otherwise, my letter will only mention a grade or contain vague details . . . and I can confidently say from my own experience evaluating applications and reference letters that such a short and non-specific letter will be of virtually no benefit to you, no matter how good your grades might be. To understand better why I say this, you should read and compare the following two letters:

              Letter A               Letter B

Do you notice the differences? I think it's easy to see that . . .

In order to maximize your chances of obtaining a strong letter from me, you should take preparatory steps long before you actually need it . . . and I mean months or even years in advance. Here are a few things to consider:

  1. Think ahead. Cultivate your references: Start thinking about your need for reference letters early on in your studies. As you take courses and meet your profs, think about who you would most like to write a reference for you.
  2. Stand out from the crowd: Ask questions in and out of class. Impress your instructors with what you know and how you think. Perform well in class but (just as important) demonstrate your desire and ability to learn!
  3. Get to know your profs: Visit their office hours. Introduce yourself by name and make sure they know who you are. Share your mathematical (or other subject-based) interests and your career or academic aspirations.
That's all preparatory work. Once you plan to submit an application and the deadline is approaching, this is what you should do when you ask me (or anyone else) for a reference:
  1. Give advance warning: Don't leave your letter request to the last minute. Leave me at least several weeks lead time.
  2. Provide supporting information: Send me your CV, unofficial transcript, and any other material that you submit along with your application. Include the job ad or any other information about what specifically you are applying for. Be sure to remind me about deadlines.
  3. Tell me about YOU: Make sure I know why you are applying, what your goals are, and anything you would like me to write.
  4. Be grateful. And stay in touch: Thank me in person or at least in a brief note. Follow up by letting me know whether or not your application was successful. Stay in touch, since you never know when you'll have to ask me for another letter.


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