Advice for Students Requesting Reference Letters

Please read the advice below before contacting me about writing you a reference letter. This advice is generally intended for students currently at the undergrad or MS level (others feel free to write and discuss your circumstances directly).

In a typical year I write around 50-75 reference letters. Assuming each applicant applies to 10-15 schools, this requires me to respond to somewhere between 500-1000 reference requests. Nearly all of these are required during a short period in early/mid December.

With this in mind, I'm happy to write you a letter, but I may not have the bandwidth to write you a letter that is highly personalized.

Students who have conducted research with me:

If we have a track record of working together (e.g. published work) then I'll be happy to write you a personalized letter. Nevertheless it would be helpful if you could:

Students who have taken my class:

If we do not have a track record of working together, i.e., you are a student who has taken my class but did not interact with me, then I would usually prefer not to submit a letter. If you ask for such a letter, I would caution that it will mostly not be useful for your application. At most, I will most likely submit a generic letter. The template I will use can be found here. Please consider the following when asking for a letter:

Again, consider seriously whether a simple form letter describing class performance will be useful. In a pinch I always agree to write letters, assuming you have considered your options and that my letter is the strongest option you have. Consider the following when deciding whether my letter will really be the best option:

Note that the above standards reflect my experience at UCSD. At lower-ranked schools a lower grade percentile may be sufficient, while at higher-ranked schools even being in the top 10 percent may not be enough.

Many programs give you the option to "waive the right to view the recommendation". I will not submit a letter if you do not waive this right.

Students requiring skills verification letters (or similar):

In addition to reference letters, several (typically former) students request "skill verification" letters each year, usually for visa purposes. These range from simple letters covering grades and course content, to detailed letters asserting your expertise in research. In both cases, letter templates are usually prepared by an immigration attorney.

Again, I am happy to write such letters, but please consider the following: