Letters of Recommendation

Before asking your advisor and other professors for a letter of recommendation, you should consider what such a request involves. The assumption is that the faculty member will fairly and honestly evaluate your performance and behavior inside and outside of the classroom. Credibility of future letters from a professor reflects the accuracy of past references and the performance of our graduates in later education and employment situations. The letter is not merely a repetition of course grades since that information is already on the student transcript. Therefore, the quality of a recommendation depends upon the details of student performance, their personal responsibility, motivational issues, and cooperative relationships.

Carefully select the faculty members you ask to write letters of recommendation for you. Choose professors who know you well, with whom you have taken several classes or had other academic experiences, and for whom you have performed very well. It may be to the student’s advantage to understand that faculty may suggest requesting a letter from a different person either because they have too little knowledge of the student’s abilities or because the student’s performance in their classes or other settings would not provide an adequately supportive letter. In this case, the students should seek out another faculty member to write them a letter. Please remember that it is ultimately the decision of your professor whether he or she is willing to be a reference for you.

Graduate schools and employers are interested in obtaining information from letters of reference that supplement what you provide through transcripts, resumes, and application forms. Typically, they ask writers to comment on the nature and extent of their relationship with the student; the intellectual ability and originality displayed through papers, essays, and group activities; the level of motivation for committing to a job or completing a graduate program; qualities such as cooperation, maturity, persistence, independence, and empathy; as well as specific skills in oral and written communication, statistical analysis and research design, or critical thinking ability.

Once you have decided to ask a faculty member for a letter of recommendation, be certain to approach them personally (not just via e-mail or phone) and be ready to supply all of the relevant materials at least 3 weeks prior to your application deadline. This should include the following:

  • An updated personal resume or vita that indicates appropriate educational and work experiences, volunteering, clubs, special projects, and committees served on
  • Academic transcripts (unofficial copies are fine) highlighting courses taken with the faculty member, grade point average, and other important details; perhaps copies of work done in the past for this faculty member
  • A copy of any personal statement or letter you will be including in your application - if that is not required by the university or the job, write a few paragraphs explaining your goals, special qualifications, and interests in a particular program or position
  • A list of graduate schools or jobs, specific program or position, deadlines for references, whether or not a special form is needed (and do not forget to include it after filling out any required information such as a waiver of confidentiality), and a stamped, addressed envelope for each letter to be written