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:
- Contact me at least a couple of weeks before the earliest reference is required.
- In your e-mail include a 2-3 paragraph summary of our research projects. I will rewrite this but this will save me some time.
- Let me know of any other specifics you'd like me to include, e.g. highlights that you think won't be mentioned in your other letters.
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, then 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:
- Fill out the linked template before contacting me. I will then add a letterhead / signature.
- You are welcome to add extra details, though I may or may not end up including them. If your work particularly stood out, e.g. you had a top-ranking assignment, then by all means include these highlights.
- Try to apply for all programs within a short period of time. I am less likely to miss a request if all the requests associated with you come in simultaneously.
- If you are applying to more than one or two programs, please use a letter submission service like interfolio. This will mean I upload the letter only once and it will be automatically submitted for you each time you request it. This costs a little money but is incredibly useful if you're applying to several programs and dealing with several letter writers. I may skip the requests if you do not use such a service.
Unless you are an A+ student, please consider seriously whether a simple form letter describing class performance will be useful. 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:
- A letter that is limited to your performance in class is usually regarded as a "neutral" letter (at best), even if your grades are strong. Having strong class performance may be enough to get into some MS programs, but will likely not be helpful at the PhD level.
- On nearly every application portal, letter writers are required to enter a percentile along with your letter (e.g. "this applicant is among the top X% of graduates in your program"). At least for MS programs, these percentile scores are more important than the letter itself. As such, your relative performance in a class is more important than the letter grade you received.
- If your grades are not in the top 10-15 percent (typically an A+ in my classes), then your letter may be looked at negatively. It can be a red flag if you request a letter discussing class performance, from a class where you had a middling grade. I would only suggest including such a letter if you are confident of having stronger letters from other professors, and just need my letter to meet application requirements.
- At the PhD level, it may be more useful to solicit letters from people who know you personally. A discussion of your individual qualities, or research projects, may be more useful than grades, especially if your grades are not strong.
- Please read the template in detail to make sure you understand its contents.
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:
- Either provide a template in properly formatted latex (which I can put onto letterhead) or a pdf on university letterhead with space for my signature.
- For a simple verification letter, pdf format is fine; for a more detailed letter, please provide a latex copy as I will have to edit it.
- The following is fine for UCSD letterhead: 1 and 2.
- Please fill out all components of the letter and do not leave "placeholders" for details such as my title and institution. Please also be mindful about formatting, e.g. do not copy characters from Word to latex that do not render correctly.