Last Updated: 11/8/2020.

Letter of Recommendation

If you are reading this page, you might be considering or have already asked that I write you a letter of recommendation. I have a standard response to requests for writing recommendations, regardless of how well I know the person or in what context.

I take recommendation writing very seriously. While it is an aspect of my job, I am very aware that the letter I write may have an impact on the requestor’s future plans. I spend a significant amount of my time on each in the evenings and on weekends thinking, writing, reviewing, and submitting a recommendation for almost anyone, should they ask.

So, before I potentially embark on writing this letter for you, I need you to consider the following:

What are admissions committees looking for in a letter?

Recommendations that impress a committee are ones where the writer can tell a significant “story” about the applicant: where the professor and the student have interacted significantly, in which the student put in a lot of effort, and/or did very well in the class. Conversely, committees are not impressed if a recommender does not have much to say.

A useful exercise is to imagine what types of things you think I would be able to write about you in a letter. There are lots of things you probably want to highlight about yourself in your personal statement for any application, but are there any that I can personally speak to them from our interactions in work/class? The more specific I can be about our interactions will generally result in a letter that is considered more strong by a committee. Conversely, if I can only say general statements like "They did well in the class", committees might not be as impressed (since they can already see that in your transcript).

A note: Many students ask me for letters of recommendation since they want to apply to CS programs and had me in a CS course. Usually, admissions committees care more about what the professor has to say in the letter rather than what unit they teach in; just because I teach CS doesn't necessarily mean my letter will be seen more favorably in CS admissions committees if I don't have a lot to say about our interactions. In other words, this means the advice above still applies and you should think about what things I can say about you as a more important feature than the fact that I teach CS.

If emailing me to ask for a recommendation is one of the first times we have ever talked, I will likely not be able to write a strong letter of recommendation. As the two paragraphs above say, I need to be able to write specifically about your performance in my classes. It's difficult for me to write about your specific strengths if I never was able to see you demonstrate them in our interactions.

Given what I have just said, if you feel there is another person more suitable for this letter writing, I will not be offended if you change your mind and ask that other person instead. My goal is for you to have the best recommendation letter written for you possible. Now, if you’ve read the above and you still feel I am the best person to write this letter I will need the following from you via email:

1. Recommendation Logistics

I will need to know some logistic details about your application process. You need to send me the following information for each school/program you wish for me to write a letter to:

  • The full name of the program
  • When is the letter due?
  • A link to information about the program and/or a prompt about what the letter should address.
  • How do I submit the letter? Is it through an online portal or do I have to send it to a particular email address?

There are also some parameters that I use when deciding to accept requests for letters of recommendation. Requests that don't meet these parameters may be denied.

  • I need at least three weeks of time between I receive all of your materials and have agreed to write the letter and the due date of the first letter. Ideally more lead time is prefereable (especially in the middle of a quarter).
  • Your list of schools/programs needs to be curated to at most 8 schools (≤ 8). It is NOT worth your money or my time (most programs require recommenders to answer additional questions beyond just submitting a letter and I try to tailor letters for different programs when applicable) for you to take a "scattershot" approach to applications. Particularly for graduate programs, the "fit" of the program with your goals is much more important than things like reputation so take the time to narrow down your list to just the programs you'd be most excited to join for the right reasons.
    • Please submit your list of programs sorted by when their letter of recommendations are due.
Applying to the Allen School's B.S/M.S program?

If you are applying to the B.S/M.S program in the Allen School, you do not need to include these logistic details. We use an internal tool for the application.

2. Confidentiality

Confidential recommendations are much stronger than non-confidential ones, so sending a confidential recommendation works to your benefit.  Additionally, I will only write confidential recommendations. Remember to sign the confidential authorization on all of your forms! If your form does not include a place to sign for a confidential authorization, please type out “I understand that Federal Law provides me with a right of access to this letter of recommendation.  I hereby waive my right of access to this confidential recommendation” on a separate piece of paper and sign it for me. I will include it with my letter. I need a piece of paper stating the confidentiality for every single letter I send for you.

3. About you!

Please send an email with the following background information to help me craft my letter:

  1. Background information
    1. A description of what you are applying for and why you are applying for this particular program. If you are applying for a summer program or internship, Why are you interested in this particular program or internship? What do you hope to gain from it?  If this is for a college or graduate school: What draws you to those colleges? What would you like to study (in CS or otherwise?) If this is for a scholarship, please tell me why you think you have a significant chance at receiving it?
    2. If you were a student in one of my classes, please remind me which course, semester and year you took my class. If you were not a student in a recent class, it would be helpful if you included a photo as well. If you worked for or with me in some capacity (e.g. as my TA), I shouldn't need reminding but it can help if it has been a while 😄
    3. Tell me your major, and what type of degree (B.S., B.A., etc) you expect to receive and whether you are in the Honors College.  If you have graduated, tell me your date of graduation (and the title of your Honors thesis if applicable). If you will be graduating in the future, tell me your anticipated graduation date.
  2. Include a brief reflection on your work: This is probably the most helpful for me (and thus the most important) in writing your recommendation letter. I’d like you to describe two different projects or moments in class or during your work in which you feel you shined.  What was it about those moments that made you feel particularly proud? What unique skills did they highlight (creativity, originality, persistence, problem-solving, critical thinking or your willingness to explore a topic from a new angle)?
    • Usually this should be related to projects you have worked on with me in class or related to something you did in class. I'm certain you have also done lots of cool things outside of class, but my letter of recommendation should focus on what I can say about your work, and I have a much harder time speaking to your personal projects that I've never seen before. This is not a strict requirement, but just note that I usually can't speak strongly about personal projects if we have never discussed them before.
  3. What qualities about yourself do you think I should speak to in my letter of recommendation? These should be things I can speak to from our experience working together or having you in a student in my course(s). It would be helpful if you could point out any interactions we have had where I can personally speak to these qualities.
    • While not required, it may also help if you include a version of your personal statement that you are writing for your application (if applicable). Being able to read what you are highlighting about yourself will help me in writing a letter that is complementary to your application materials.
  4. Please also include your resume, brag sheet or other information about yourself beyond the classroom. This could also include any other relevant experience or information you think I’ll find useful. An example might be computer science and programming experience - what have you done for fun? For work?

Best of luck with your application!

Much of this text is borrowed from my colleagues, Lauren Bricker and Justin Hsia.