Part of my job as a professor is to write letters of recommendations for students, and I’m happy to do it. Here’s what you need to know to make sure the process is pleasant and effective for both of us.
A letter of recommendation that says “So-and-so took my course in X and got a grade of Y” is not a powerful letter. In most cases, you will be sending a transcript along with your application anyway, so the committee reading your application will know what grades you got in different classes. You want a letter that can say more than that.
Most selection committees will want to know something about your character and potential from someone who knows you well. Some of the things they might be interested in include your intellectual curiosity, integrity, responsibility, work ethic, how you work with others, your academic potential in a specific area, and so on.
If you and I have not had a working relationship where I might know some of these things about you, I can probably only write the sort of letter that says “they took my course X and got a grade of Y”. If that’s the case, you might want to think about whether there’s a better person to ask.
How might I know these things? Ideally, you and I have had a one-on-one relationship, say, through a research project. You might have visited me often in office hours. You might have distinguished yourself in class by asking good questions and going above and beyond expectations on assignments.
The process works best if you do the following:
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 much worse! You should feel free to nag me:
Of course, it’s never pleasant to nag, but with a little effort you can do it kindly and politely, especially since I have explicitly asked you to do so. For example, you could send an email saying something like:
Hi Dr. Ernst, I just wanted to remind you that the letter of recommendation to the Committee on Giving People Money for Being Awesome is due this Friday. The letter can be sent electronically to firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks!
Mathematics & Teaching
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