I am happy to write letters of recommendation for students for graduate study or relevant professional opportunities. To ensure that the letter is actually useful for you and that I have enough information, I ask that you please read and follow the guidelines below.
Should you ask me?
A letter of recommendation should be from a professor or supervisor who knows you and your abilities well. In general, the better someone knows you, the better they will be able speak to aspects of your character and abilities that do not show up on a transcript (work ethic, intellectual curiosity, collaboration skills, etc.). Given the short length of quarters at UCSB, you must have completed at least one course with me. For a current first-time student, I will not have an adequate sense of your academic abilities until you complete the term, and it is ideal to have had two or more classes with me, as I will then be able to comment on your consistency across classes.
Most graduate institutions ask professors to rank students against the other students they have taught. For this reason, I will be able to write better recommendations for students with higher grades in my courses. If you have received a final grade below a B+, you are better served asking another professor in whose course you did better.
I must have a sense of you as a person beyond the letter grade that appears in my records. Especially for large lecture-style courses, where it is difficult for professors to know their students well individually, please reflect back upon your own experience: Did you ask questions in class? Did you actively participate in discussions? Did you make use of office hours to ask questions and tell me more about your interests? Did you find other ways to leave a lasting, positive impression? To write a strong and effective letter, I need to be able to describe you qualitatively.
I generally only write recommendation letters when you have agreed to waive your right to examine the letter. When I write letters of recommendation, I treat them as confidential documents whose destination is to a relevant third party (prospective employer, graduate school, fellowship committee). By asking me for a letter, you are giving me permission to discuss your performance, both quantitatively and qualitatively, in my courses and to provide the third party with an honest accounting of your academic abilities and your promise for future success. I do not intend to write letters where I have negative things to say, but I think the letter is taken more seriously when the selection committee knows that you are not reading it as well.
Timing and Information Needed
I generally need at least two weeks notice to write a recommendation, so please let me know as early as possible if you would like me to write a letter of recommendation. If I am unable to write for you, asking early ensures you then have plenty of time to find another recommender. In some cases I may be able to complete a letter on a shorter timeline, but letter writing takes time and I may have other pressing deadlines.
Please provide me with useful information about the opportunity to which you are applying. If you are applying to graduate schools, what are your motivations for the particular course of study and the departments or schools to which you are applying? If you are applying to a job, why does a particular employer or professional opportunity excite you? If you are applying to multiple locations, it is helpful to send me a list of all of them and any specific requirements or attributes they might have or particular factors they desire (e.g., a job is asking for applicants with a strong language skills).
Let me know the deadline by which your letter is needed and how the recommendation should be submitted (will I receive an email? is there an online form? do I email it to a specific contact person?).
After I Have Agreed to Write
So that I can write a full and effective letter, it is helpful for me to have additional information about you when possible and when relevant such as: an unofficial copy of your transcript, your résumé, a copy of the cover letter that will accompany your job application, copies of writing samples that you have submitted or published, scores from recent entrance exams (e.g., GRE, LSAT) where required, and copies of personal statements that you’re submitting with your application.
If there are any personal challenges or disruptions that, for instance, led to low grades early in college or a leave of absence, you do not need to provide too many details, but letting me know can help explain issues in your transcript or résumé that might raise questions for selection or hiring committees. I can then try to address these in my letter.
I will plan to email you to let you know when I have submitted a letter (and you will often receive automatic notifications from application systems). If you have not heard from me, please email me a few days before the deadline to remind me of when the letter is due and what the submission process is.
Attribution note: adapted from Nancy Koven and Scott D. Anderson.