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Getting a Letter of Recommendation

based on the work of:
Scott D. Anderson

I am frequently asked to write letters of recommendation for students. I'm generally happy to write them. However, to make the process effective for both of us, there's some information I'd like you to be aware of.

How many will I write?

I will not take requests for college recomendations after October 15th or after I have recieved 15 requestes to write recomendations; whichever comes first. All recomendations will be written and submitted to guidence by the Wednesday before Thanksgiving.

Should you ask me?

A letter of recommendation that says "Sally took my course in X and got a grade of Y" is not a powerful letter. For most things that you apply for (colleges, jobs, internships, scholarships), you will send a transcript, so the selection committee reading your application will know what grade you got in different classes. You want a letter that can say more.

Most selection committees want to know something about your character from someone who knows you well. Some of the things they might be interested in include:

  • intellectual curiosity and zeal
  • honesty and integrity
  • responsibility and punctuality
  • demeanor and personality

If you and I have not had a working relationship where I might know some of those things about you, I can probably only write the "she took my course X and got a grade of Y" letter. If that's the case, you might want to think about whether there's a better person to ask.

Sometimes, you need a letter of recommendation and there's no one better to ask, in which case I'm happy to write you the letter I can, even if it's the not-so-strong one. Everyone has to start somewhere.

No matter what, please remember I will be honest and give my full opinion about you and the observations I have made of you in the time I have known you.  Consider this before  asking me for a recomendation.

What should you do?

The process works best if you do the following:

  • Ask me early enough. A few weeks is usually sufficient, but the earlier the better. Sometimes this is impossible, due to late-breaking information, but in that case, I sometimes cannot squeeze in the time.
  • Tell me what they're looking for or what you'd like to emphasize. If they're worried about intellectual curiosity, tell me that. If you'd like to emphasize your research aptitude, tell me that.
  • Fill out and provided me with a copy of your recomendation request form. This is located at
  • Provide me with useful information for the letter. Even if I know you well, my memory may fail me. Remind me of interactions we've had and experiences that may illustrate the qualities you'd like me to bring out in the letter. For example, if you'd like to emphasize your leadership ability, remind me of the time that you volunteered to convene a panel discussion on some topic.
  • Now is not the time to be modest! Provide me with accomplishments or skills that you'd like my letter to mention. If for some reason I don't feel qualified to talk about some of them, I'll leave those out. It can't hurt you to mention them to me. Remember, I'm on your side.
  • A resume or transcript can occasionally be helpful, but that's really more raw material that I can read over for stuff to talk about. It's even better if you can draw my attention to particular items on your resume or transcript that I might be able to speak to.
  • Tell me the deadline for each letter, as well as the address.
  • If electronic submission is possible, please let me know that, too. Yes, I can read the web site or application materials as well as you can, but the easier you make this for me to do, the more reliable I will be.

After you've asked

As happy as I am to write letters of recommendation, they take time, which is always a scarce resource. I will feel awful if I miss your deadline, but you will feel worse. A friend of mine from high school missed didn't get into a great college because someone forgot to send a letter of recommendation. Don't let that happen to you! So, nag:

  • Email me a few days before the deadline, reminding me that it's coming up.
  • Make sure you get an email from me saying that I've sent it.
  • If you don't get that email, keep asking

Naturally, it's not pleasant to nag, but with a little effort you can do it kindly and politely, particularly since I've asked you to nag me. A simple email saying something like the following is fine.

I just wanted to remind you that the letter of recommendation to MIT is due next Friday. Thanks!

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