Advice to Students:  Letters of Recommendation

Writing student recommendations comes with the faculty job, and I will usually write one if I am asked.  Since this territory is apparently unfamiliar to some Texas Tech students, I thought it would helpful to provide you with some general guidelines and advice. From what I can tell, it seems that many students either want (or think they want) something that looks like this:


To avoid the example above, please keep the following in mind

When it comes time to needing a recommendation, make sure you’re asking the right person. Is this someone you have worked closely with (as a research assistant) or taken a few classes from (and done well)?  Big names aren’t always the best recommenders – and yet, that doesn’t give you license to ask a bunch of graduate student teaching assistants for letters.  Finally, remember that in many cases, letters from senior faculty usually carry more weight.  Junior faculty who are relatively less well known outside their subfield carry less.  Strong letters matter most, though, and you may be able to build closer relationships with junior faculty less inundated with students.  Keep this trade-off in mind – a balance of junior and senior faculty recommenders is most likely best.

Strong letters usually come from long and close relationships with faculty.  We take these letters seriously, since we often write these letters to our colleagues at the same pool of schools and employers.  Our reputations are at stake, so students should request a letter with equal seriousness and care. Further, solid letters take time to write, especially those for graduate school and (most of all) those intended for jobs. Approach your professors (including me) as early as possible – ideally at least 3–4 weeks in advance depending upon how many letters you need.  Faculty are extremely busy, and last-minute requests might get last-minute effort. I may be bold in suggesting that I may be similar to other faculty, but I think it is safe to say that I generally write recommendation letters for students who:

If none of these apply, it will be difficult to write a strong letter for you.  Letters are usually explicit about how long we’ve known you, in what capacity, and how we rank you relative to your peers and our past students. 

How can you find out if someone will write a strong letter for you?  The best way is for you to ask directly – be brave! Once I agree to recommend you, three or four weeks before the due date you should send one, well-organized e-mail to me (attachments should be uncompressed individual PDF files attached to a single e-mail addressed to me at anthony DOT kaye AT ttu DOT edu) with the following information:

      1. your latest curriculum vitae or résumé (which ever is more appropriate);
      2. your transcripts, GPAs, and (if relevant) standardized test scores (e.g., GRE, LSAT, MCAT, or GMAT);
      3. a very short (2–3 sentence) abstract or main finding of your thesis or other current work;
      4. a list of where are the letters will be going; and
      5. supplementary information (e.g., how I got to know you, prizes you have won, and relevant anecdotes that might make useful stories to illustrate characteristics of you or your work (e.g., solved a problem in five minutes that Dr. Kaye had been working on full time for six weeks).  This is not the time for modesty. Do not assume that I will remember something if you do not include it.

        Note: If your record includes something negative (e.g., you were in graduate school for too long or your GPA isn’t ideal), include your plausible explanation for what happened (if you have one).  Remember that I will treat your e-mail as confidential, so be sure to tell me the whole truth.

To help you include all of this, I have provided a form for you to fill out here.  (Credit to Prof. Kim Yi Dionne, who posted a version of this that I modified.)


General advice

Be sure to send me all of your personal written statements (e.g., statement of purpose, research proposal, statement of teaching interests, or other personal statements) that you are including as part of your application.  Letter-writers take these seriously, and often discuss the specific strengths and weaknesses of the proposal in their letter.  You should ensure your letter writer sees a highly polished version (read: a version that is as close to the final version as possible that has no spelling mistakes and zero grammatical errors) before the letter is written.  Planning in advance is critical; you probably want to start discussing the proposal with your advisor(s) at least six to eight weeks before the letters are due.

If your application requires n letters, you might be tempted to send (n+1).  This is, generally speaking, a bad idea since every letter after your best one lowers the average quality of your application.  A fourth letter only makes sense if it will be glowing and adds a completely different perspective. Some special circumstances may require additional letters – consult with your advisor early!

In every case, be sure you provide a description of your goal (e.g., each job, fellowship, scholarship, or scholastic position), and how the evaluators will score your application – especially the letters (i.e., what the evaluators looking for in a letter).  In many cases, a job or scholarship application will offer specific guidelines; if they don’t, provide a quick description to your letter writers.

Many applications are now online.  This is less convenient than it sounds, since every school and job has a different form and custom method of submission.  Please fill out the maximum amount of information about your recommender that you can (including contact information) so that your recommender doesn’t have to complete the same information 87 times.  This process can take a faculty member hours – which tends to be frustrating – and frustrated letter writers do not write the best letters (see the potential example letter above).

For many applications, you will want at least one or two academic letters; you should therefore maintain (positive) contact with your advisor(s) after you graduate.


Final actions

At the end of the day, after your applications have been submitted, some have suggested that you should write each of your letter writers a brief (handwritten) thank you note. (Your parents would likely approve.)


If you would like to download this page as a single PDF file (not including the letter request form), you can simply click here.


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