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:
- you must have obtained at least an A- grade in a class I have
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:
- I know you personally (by name) either from participating in my
lectures or through conversations outside of class,
- you have worked with me on a research project.
Do you notice the differences? I think it's easy to see that . . .
- A high grade by itself doesn't actually mean very much.
- It's what your prof knows about you, your abilities, or your
other activities that can have a much bigger impact in a letter.
- After a long period of time having no contact with your letter-writer,
you can't expect them to remember details about you.
- Letter A will have no impact on someone's opinion of
you, but Letter B might get you the position you desire!
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:
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:
- 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.
- 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!
- 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.
- Give advance warning: Don't leave your letter request to the
last minute. Leave me at least several weeks lead time.
- 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
- Tell me about YOU: Make sure I know why you are applying,
what your goals are, and anything you would like me to write.
- 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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Last modified: Mon Dec 11 2017