How to get a good letter of recommendation

09 Feb 2020

If you are a student looking for a job or applying to graduate school, you will find that you need to ask one or more professors for letters of recommendation, or at least for the right to list one of us as a reference on your resume. Asking a professor for this favor can feel intimidating, but you should know that most of us view this task as part of our job description. (While writing letters is part of our job description, writing positive letters for every single student who asks is not.)

Here are some heuristics for getting a good letter of recommendation:

Stand out from the crowd. All employers and graduate schools want to attract special people, and so you want your letters to provide evidence of that. Simply getting good grades on your homework assignments and tests is not, unfortunately, the ticket to a recommendation letter that stands out from the crowd. If the only thing I can say in my letter is that you turned in your assignments on time and received an A in the class, that will be received as a lukewarm endorsement at best.

To get a good recommendation letter, you need to do something beyond simply attending class and getting a decent grade. Some students have done that by taking a leadership role in the class and going above and beyond the minimal requirements. Others have continued on and taken independent study classes. Still others have done an Honors Thesis, or volunteered in my research group. For all of those students, I can write a recommendation letter that goes into specifics about what they have accomplished working directly with me outside the normal classroom environment. In one case, I wrote an enthusiastic letter of recommendation for a student who received a low grade in my class because he convinced me from his additional activities that this grade was not indicative of his capabilities.

Create a high quality professional portfolio, and keep it up to date. I teach a lot of students, and sometimes several years might pass before you find the need to ask me for a letter of recommendation. One of the many virtues of a professional portfolio is that it can help refresh my memory about your accomplishments in my class, as well as inform me of any additional accomplishments since that time. Before contacting me, review your professional portfolio and make it as polished and up to date as possible. If I am impressed by your portfolio, it is much easier for me to write an impressive letter of recommendation.

If your professional portfolio includes no new projects or essays since my class, then it is harder for me to write you a really good letter of recommendation. My best recommendation letters have the form: “This student did well in my class, but I am particularly impressed by their accomplishments afterwards…”, where I continue with a description of what you did since my class. Note that for me to write this kind of letter effectively, I need more than a resume or LinkedIn profile from you, since those only contain bullet points. Instead, I need the kind of long-form description available in a portfolio, where you can provide detailed information about projects and/or essays discussing, for example, your perspectives on leadership.

Waive your right of access to the letters of recommendation. Whenever a school requests letters of recommendation, you must indicate whether or not you are willing to waive your right to see the letters. While curiosity (or fear) might tempt you to not waive the right, resist this feeling. If a school knows that you have retained the right to review the letters, then the letters have significantly less impact. As someone who reviews applications to our graduate program, I am not confident that the recommending letter is completely “honest” when I see that the student has retained the right to view it. Even worse, I wonder if the student has solicited letters previously, then selected only the positive ones to forward on.

A better way to go is to ask the potential recommender: “Are you able to write me a positive letter of recommendation?” I know of no one (at least on the ICS faculty) who would lie in response to that question. Either they will say, “Yes”, or they will say something like, “Well, I really didn’t have enough interaction with you to write something good, do you work with another faculty member more closely?”, or even, “I’m really sorry, I’m very busy with other duties right now, I don’t think I can do it in a timely manner.”

Consider setting up a credentials file at Student Services. If you are applying to lot of jobs, it can be useful to set up a credential file. Using this mechanism, I can write a single letter of recommendation, and you can get it sent to as many potential employers as you like, for as long as you like. Those letters tend to be somewhat more generic, but the advantage is that you have easy access. Note that some programs, such as the ICS graduate program, have specific forms that need to be filled out so you cannot use the credentials service in all cases.

Here’s how to request a letter from me. This also works pretty well for other faculty members.

  1. Update your professional portfolio, or create one if you don’t have one already. To write you a decent letter, I need to be reminded of your background.

  2. If you are going to ask me for a generic letter of recommendation, go to Career Services, and set up a confidential credential file. (I do not write “open” letters of recommendation, since they are generally useless in the job market.)

  3. If you are applying to places that have specific forms or submission instructions, do research on what is needed and assemble all materials I will need to complete the recommendation.

  4. Once you have completed the above, send me an email asking if I can write you a letter of recommendation. Provide me with a link to your updated professional portfolio site. Remind me of all the classes you took from me, the semester you took them from me, and what grade you received. If there are deadlines I should be aware of, please let me know. Let me know if you need a letter for a specific program (such as the ICS graduate program) or a generic letter for Career Services, or both. I will reply to let you know if I am able to write you a letter.

  5. If I reply positively, then if you are requesting a generic letter, print out and fill out the “Instructions for authors of credential letters”, and drop it off in my mailbox in the ICS Office (POST 302). If you also need physical letters for specific programs, print out the forms (if hardcopy) and put them in my mailbox as well. Send me an email indicating that you have dropped these materials off in my mailbox. If you want me to upload a letter to an online service, then provide me with details in your email. Note: please make the process clear and straightforward for me. Don’t expect me to figure out your deadlines, or what services I am supposed to use on your behalf. I want to help you but you need to do your part.

  6. When I have written the letter(s), I will reply to your email and let you know that I’ve done so.

Good luck with your future endeavors, and I hope that we in the ICS Department have provided what you need for a happy and prosperous future.