Letters

As a new faculty member, I am only beginning to understand the finer points of academic reference writing and am becoming more and more aware how little I understood the process when I asked my advisors and professors for letters. This page is a guide for students and reference-seekers. I hope it’s helpful.

I am generally amenable to writing a letter of reference and if asked, I will. However, good letters take time and we will both benefit if you ask ahead of time, generally about a month in advance. This is particularly true for letters to graduate school. Letter-writers should be chosen carefully, a nice professor is not necessarily the best to comment on your work. Asking me for a letter or reference is probably a good idea if:

  • you took at least one class with me and did very well;
  • you worked for me for at least four months;
  • you wrote a strong senior honor’s thesis paper for me; or
  • had some other close interaction that is relevant to your application.

If you don’t meet any of these qualifications, I will have a difficult time writing a strong letter for you. And believe me, you want strong letters. If you are unsure whether you “did well” or whether I will write you a strong letter, just ask. No one has anything to gain from dishonesty here.

Once I have agreed to write you a letter, please put together the following information (where applicable) and send it to me, preferably electronically, but most importantly, all together. Not all of these things will be relevant to every application.

  • A current resume or curriculum vita (CV);
  • A list of courses you have taken with me and grades received;
  • Transcript or list of relevant courses with grades;
  • A description of the job(s), fellowship(s), or graduate program(s) to which you are applying;
  • Personal statement; or about a page describing your interest in the program, how the program will help you reach your goals, and personal strengths and weaknesses that you bring to the program;
  • GRE or relevant test scores, if you’ve taken them, if not, when you plan to take them;
  • A statement indicating that I may discuss your coursework with the organization, school, or fellowship.

If there are forms to be filled out, please fill them out as much as you can before sending them to your professor. If the letter or forms are to be mailed, provide an addressed, stamped envelope for each letter.

If you would like me to “serve as a reference”:

Often, students ask if they can list me as a reference for a fellowship or program with which I am unfamiliar. In this case, I ask that students complete a packet as outlined above and, if possible, determine what will be the parameters of my involvement. Will I need to write a letter? Will they call me? The more information I have, the stronger reference I can provide.

It is important to note that a letter from me, a junior member of the faculty and currently in a visiting position, will carry much less weight than a senior faculty member who may be more well-known. There might be a trade-off in how well you know your letter-writer and their tenure and stature at an institution. This is not to discourage you from asking me, but it is something to consider.

Lastly, Good luck!

Thanks to Chris Blattman for the inspiration for this page.

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