Since this is the season for writing letters of recommendation for admissions to graduate programs in North American universities, I thought I will put down my thoughts, advice and views on requesting these letters. As a result, this post is geared mostly towards UG/PG students who are applying for MS/PhD programs — these are the letters that I end up writing the most. However, most points mentioned here could potentially be extrapolated for other types of reference letters as well. I will also outline my personal philosophy for writing letters. The post is mostly a collection of advise and notes on logistics that I have been handing out piece-meal to students in the past.
First off, let me start by saying that it is a pleasure and a privilege to write letters for students. It gives me immense happiness to write letters for students with whom I have had excellent interactions over the years. They have personally enriched my life, and increased my knowledge about the world in myriad ways, and writing letters is one of the very small ways in which I can return that favor, so as to make sure that other places in the world can also benefit from their wit and intelligence.
Before I agree to write a letter for you, here are the few things that you should keep in mind:
(My) Rules of Engagement
- Please (^n, where n is a very large number), seek my consent before you submit my name as a potential letter writer. If I haven’t explicitly consented to writing a letter for you, and I get emails asking for the same, I will ignore them. Sorry.
- Letters of Reference are an earned right. The same way a student has a right to ask me to write a letter for them, I have every right to refuse to write one, especially if I personally do not believe that that the student will be a good fit for the role that the letter is needed for. Just because you have taken a course or done a project with me doesn’t necessarily mean that I will write a letter for you.
- A lot of people have personal policies on writing letters, this one is mine — I either write a good letter, or no letter at all. This helps me avoid situations where I’d have to write a bad letter. Or worse, agree to write a letter and then write a bad one. Typically, an answer like “You’ll be better off getting a letter from someone who knows you better” is my-speak for “please don’t make me write a bad letter for you”. Believe me, in the overall scheme of things, it is better to face rejection once (me refusing to write a letter), than multiple times (from all the places that you applied to, which turned you down because of a bad letter that I wrote). That said, even a very strong letter is no guarantee of admission, which is also a function of the candidate pool for the year. However, it is not going to hurt your chances like a bad letter would.
- Letter readers are looking for useful information in the document to help them make an informed decision. As a result, generic letters are a waste of everyone’s time. A generic letter stating that you took so-and-so class with me and got a so-and-so grade, doesn’t really serve any purpose whatsoever. This is something that would be visible in your transcript anyways. The reader probably spends a few minutes skimming the letter and is none the wiser after having read it. So, I would like to present useful information than what is contained in your SoP/CV/transcript to help make a better case for you.
- Good letters are notoriously tough to write. Usually, if I am making a claim about your candidature for something, I’d like to support that claim with evidence. This implies I have to rake my memory looking for an evidence of that claim, something that might have happened a while back. Supplying this kind of evidence becomes very difficult to do if my engagement with you has been limited. To make a good case for you, I have to know you well — what your strengths are, where you’d outshine the best of the best, and which are the areas where you require to put in more work. To get this kind of information about a student, I need to have sustained, long term engagement with them so that I can observe these traits that differentiate them as a person, and make them a good candidate for a particular role. There are also certain things that can only be observed via interactions outside a classroom setting, for example, when a student works with me on a research project and I am able to observe not only their work ethic but also the various ways in which they are able to take a possibly circuitous route of starting at a problem statement and arriving at a solution. Or, taking an existing solution, and coming up with a better one. End of the day, two things matter the most for the kind of letter that I’d be able to write for you: the duration and type of your engagement with me. The longer the engagement, the more meaningful a letter I’d be able to write making your case.
Once I have agreed to write a letter for you, the following are the things that I’d expect from you to help me submit the letters in time.
- Please provide me with enough time to write a letter. This means giving me at least a solid, two weeks notice, more, if possible. Good, thoughtful letters are hard to write, and if I have agreed to write one for you, I’d like to have enough time to give it my best shot. This is where you come in — prepare me so that I have enough time to do justice to the letter.
- Provide me a with a list of deadlines, preferably in chronological order with the list of school names against each deadline. This should be done as soon as the your applications are submitted. Typically, a google spreadsheet works well for the purpose. Once I have access to the sheet, I can set my own deadlines, accordingly.
- Please send out periodic reminders. I do make it a point to set aside time for writing letters, but sometimes life gets in the way. I do not mind getting email reminders about most things, and letter deadlines in particular. I know that substantial amount of money (in terms of application and test fees) is also at stake here, and I do not want to be the one to send it down the gutter. Sending a reminder once a week, at the start of the week, two weeks or so before the letters are due should be good. I will respond in kind by letting you know of the places that I have submitted the letters for.
- Make sure to waive the right to view the letter. This helps me write the letter candidly and honestly. For the same reason, make sure that I have a mechanism to send the letter directly to the requestor, without you being an intermediary. The requestor may be either an individual or a school. If electronic means for sending the letter are not available, I’d prefer to post the letter the old fashioned way.
(HT to Sudheendra Hangal for pointing out the last bullet.)