Guidelines for Letters of Recommendation

We encourage our students to pursue scholarships, summer research, graduate studies, internships and jobs, and are happy to assist you in attaining these goals by writing recommendation letters for you. Whether these are on-campus or off-campus opportunities, please read the following carefully before asking a professor for a recommendation.

  1. Who is a good choice to ask to write a letter? This should be someone who knows you beyond just what grade you were able to achieve in her/his class. Did you attend office hours regularly? Did you show special enthusiasm in class, lead a group discussion or make a particularly good presentation? Has the professor seen you particpating in academic activities outside the classroom like attending colloquia or conferences, giving talks, participating in competitions, etc.?
  2. Once you choose someone to ask, be sure that you ask well in advance, preferably at least three weeks. Good letters take time to craft.
  3. After the professor has agreed to write the recommendation, create a document containing the answers to the following questions (the more details the better):
    • What is your name, year, and major?
    • For what are you applying (e.g., scholarship, graduate school, summer research experience)? List the programs/schools to which you are applying, together with due dates.
    • How long has the recommender known you (years and months), and what is her/his relationship to you (instructor, advisor, etc.)? For what classes have s/he had you, what final grades did s/he assign you, and how did you distinguish yourself in his/her classes? Have you been a TA for her/him? If so, for what classes and when?
    • How would you describe yourself? What are your strengths? What are your weaknesses? Your response to this question is very important, so the more details the better.
    • What are some of your academic and nonacademic accomplishments?
    • What makes the recommender particularly qualified to write a letter for you? What makes you particularly qualified for this position/honor/award?
    • What are your long term goals and will this position/honor/award help? If so, how?
    • Additional comments (have you participated in an REU or other summer research program, had an interesting job or hobby, etc.?).
  4. At least two weeks before the first letter is due, email or hand deliver the following to the recommender (note that this should be given all at once - all in a single email, or all in a single folder, or in the same day one email and one folder with separate electronic and paper documents):
    • a list summarizing where the letters have to go, and when they are due,
    • descriptions of each job, scholarship or internship (perhaps by providing links to the appropriate websites) so that the recommender knows what qualifications to emphasize in your letter,
    • an unofficial copy of your transcript,
    • a copy of your personal statement (if applicable),
    • for paper recommendations: all necessary forms (with the student section filled out - there is usually something for you to sign),
    • for paper recommendations: addressed HWS envelopes without stamps (ask Ann Warner or Laura Sposato in Eaton 104 for the envelopes; you need to address them),
    • for electronic recommendations: a list of the email addresses or websites where the recommendations must be submitted, and
    • your responses to the questions in 3 above.
  5. Send the recommender polite e-mail reminders as deadlines approach (roughly 8-10 days ahead for paper recommendations, and 3-4 days ahead for electronic deadlines).

Although your professor knows the answers to many of the questions above, it is helpful to have all the information in one place. At first this may seem to be a lot of work, but you can use most of the same information with each person you ask for a recommendation and you will need to collect it for your application anyway. Create a file which you can easily modify or add to over time. The hope is that your work on these questions will help the recommender write a better recommendation letter for you, it will help you write a better application, and ultimately increase your chances of getting the award or position! Good luck!

Note that the ideas and format of this website are inspired by Michael Orrison's article in the May/June 2006 issue of the Newsletter of the Mathematical Association of America, FOCUS, and the website of Chad M. Topaz at Macalester College.