Recommendation Letters

You're probably landing on this page because you asked me for a recommendation letter. First off, I'm touched to be asked - thank you for putting your trust in me. My priority is to make sure your application is as successful as possible. To ensure this happens, please read the following points carefully. If you still think I'm the best person to write your letter, please email me the information detailed in point (3) below.

Point 1

Often, people ask me for a letter when their only interaction with me has been in a large class. In those cases, I'll generally only be able to say something very factual. For example:

These letters can do more harm than good - the admission committee will assume you had no-one else to ask who would say nicer things, and will very likely reject your application.

Furthermore, most recommendation systems will ask me to rate you on a number of dimensions (analytical ability, communication, etc...) compared to your peers (the options are usually "top 1%", "top 5%", etc...) If I've only interacted with you in a classroom setting, I'll have no choice but to select the option that says "insufficient opportunity to observe" for most of these questions.

The key to effective recommendation letters is making them as detailed and specific as possible. The best recommendation letters I've written are for people with whom I've worked very closely on projects; they've also often TAed for me, so I can talk about them from many angles.

So ask yourself - based on all our interactions, will I have enough information to write a detailed letter? If not, you might want to ask someone who can say more about you. A detailed recommendation from someone junior is always better than a cursory letter from someone senior (unless the senior person is truly famous - and I'm not!)

If the only interaction we have had was in a class, the likelihood is I won't be able to write a good letter for you. But if you think there are special circumstances that would give me more to write in your case, please let me know - again, my priority is your success.

Point 2

If we did interact more closely and you think a recommendation from me would be appropriate, please write a rough 1-2 page draft of your recommendation letter yourself, and send it to me. No, this is not a joke; this is a common practice in academia and will help me understand your self-perceived strengths, and what you would ideally like me to communicate about you. It will also help me understand the kind of letter you need. For example, if your ideal recommendation letter would touch on your interpersonal skills as well as your mathematical skills, make sure your draft does that. If your ideal recommendation letter is two pages long, make sure your draft is also two pages long, etc...

Please don't worry - when I prepare your actual letter, I will write it from scratch. Please don't feel the need to be modest in your letter, or to impress me - my letter will be based on my experiences with you, not on how good I think your draft letter is.

Point 3

Provide me with one email containing everything I need to complete your recommendation - this includes a list summarizing where the letters are going to and when they are due, your transcript, your resume, any notable recent achievements, and your draft recommendation letter. you must send me these at least 4 weeks before the earliest deadline, and preferably earlier.

Point 4

It is your responsibility to ensure I have submitted the letter on time to every relevant institution. I've never missed one before, but I might, so you should keep track separately and email me three days before any deadline if I have not yet submitted a letter.