Recommendation Letter Requests

The most basic requirements I need to write a letter for you are (1) that I know who you are, (2) an explanation of why a letter from me is relevant to your goals and (3) I need to have a good impression of your abilities.

Requirement (1) is pretty self-explanatory. If you are a student, please tell me the course(s) you had with me (title(s), semester(s), course grade(s)) and what your experience was like. If you know me from outside a graded course, remind me about the context and what you remember about it. Either way, with your request please include a copy of your latest CV or resume. It should include your relevant experience and awards (if any).

For students pursuing programs or jobs in mathematics, requirement (2) doesn't need a lot of work, although if you're going to law school I'd need some convincing.

Concerning (3), if you are an undergraduate asking me for a letter because you were in a class of mine, then except in unusual circumstances I can write a strong letter only if you got an A- or higher. Students who received a grade of B or B+ will need to make a compelling argument for why I should write a letter. Anyone with a grade below B in my class should seek another letter writer if your performance in my class should have any bearing on the reason you want a letter.

If I feel I need to know more about your background, I will ask to meet with you before agreeing to write a letter, in which case you should bring your application materials to my office and be prepared to talk about your plans at a time convenient for both of us. Asking to meet with you does not mean I will necessarily agree to write a letter.

If I agree to write a letter, you need to give me a copy of your application documentation at least 3 weeks in advance of my deadline for writing the letter. The following conversation really has taken place, with me as the second speaker: “Can you write me a grad school letter?” “Yes, when it is due?” “Tomorrow.” “Oh, um, ah,...” Something else to keep in mind is that faculty (as well as students) are often extremely busy near the end of the fall semester, so it is best to approach us early in the fall semester about anything due early in the spring semester, so we can spread out our tasks. In particular, students thinking about graduate school in the US or Canada should seek out letter writers before the end of October, not during fall final exams.

Feel free to send me an email reminder a week before my letter is due (or even earlier) if I haven't told you I wrote the letter yet.

Here is the documentation I want from you before the 3-week period preceding my submission deadline:

General Things to Provide

College or Graduate School Applications, Summer or Study Abroad Programs, Scholarships

Jobs at Colleges or Universities

Other Jobs

Credits: Many of the ideas above are borrowed from the recommendation letter webpages of Megumi Harada, Rob Pollack, Tom Roby, and Ravi Vakil.

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