Recommendation letter overview

I will gladly write letters of recommendation for people I have worked closely with and whose work I am familiar with. If you took an introductory class from me (e.g., DS1 or CSW 8), I am likely not your best choice as a recommender.

Especially for CS graduate school (and especially for Ph.D. programs), you want recommenders who know your work well—preferably advanced, independent, or research-oriented work—and can describe it first-hand. You want a recommendation letter that will be able to provide the admissions committee with solid information about how well you will do at the graduate level. The Ph.D. program admissions committees want recommenders who can say that you have worked on research or other projects and carried them through to completion (brilliantly, if possible). If your recommendation is going to be based on classwork, it is best that it be upper-division classwork in an area that you are interested in pursuing in grad school.

Some scholarship/fellowship applications also require the letter-writer to comment on the applicant's leadership skills and experience. If I have not abserved you in a leadership role, taking initiative and/or managing projects, then I am not be able to provide you with a recommendation letter describing you as a strong candidate.


Don't spam the universe. Every school you apply to takes the recommender's time. Even though the body of the recommendation will probably be the same, each scholarship and each school has its own form and its own process. A student who applies to ten schools is asking the recommender to spend the better part of an hour just filling out forms on line. In most cases you should narrow your choices to the handful of schools whose programs fit you best (and vice versa). Application-spamming a dozen or more schools might indicate that you haven't done enough research early enough in the process.

Let's talk. Try to arrange a time to sit down with me for a brief chat, to let me know what you've been doing and what you'd like to do. I may even be able to give you some useful advice for your application process and choice of schools.

If I agree to write you a letter, following these guidelines will help me be most effective:
  • Give me enough lead time. I prefer to have 4-6 weeks advance notice. Also, if you have not received a confirmation that the letter has been submitted, it will make both of us feel more secure if you drop me an email 3 days before the first letter is due, just to make sure it got sent out or is ready to be submitted. Further reminders are not helpful.
  • Send me all information in *one* email. Any follow-ups should be in the same thread. When the time comes for me to write your letters (and everyone else's), it is just too tedious and time-consuming to search around for multiple messages. I need one message, clearly labeled as coming from you, with "recommendation" in the subject, that contains whatever information you are providing me in text or attachments.
  • Submit all letter requests all at once. I want to write and submit all your letters in one sitting, so please don't have additional letter requests come in at various times over a three-month period.
  • Email me your
    • (unofficial) current transcript,
    • CV/resume or a list of professional activities and your contributions/achievements,
    • a draft of your application statement (doesn't need to be final) - your narrative is very helpful for me to know how to best structure my recommendation.
    • a brief summary of our association: Which course(s) in which quarter(s) did you take, tutor, or TA? Write down each course and each quarter, along with your grade, if applicable.
    • A "highlights" sheet. This is a list of all the things you've done while _working with me_. This includes anything notable: from homeworks you did especially well on or extra credit earned, to projects you completed, any teaching evaluations you have, or any other details that I may have forgotten—these will help flesh out your recommendation. You should be very generous to yourself here; I am always free to leave out something that I don't think is noteworthy, but you should certainly assume I don't remember everything you did that is noteworthy, so let me know of any specifics that you might want me to include.
Best of luck with your applications!
Acknowledgements: These guidelines have been gratefully adopted from Shriram Krishnamurthi and David Kay.