Letters of Recommendation
Can I write a letter for you? I will gladly write letters of recommendation for
people I've worked closely with, but with the huge recent increase in the number of people studying computer science, I am forced to be less automatically generous about this than I have been in the past.
Are you a UTeacher, a lab tutor coordinator, a course manager? I'd be pleased to write a letter for you. The same goes if we've done a successful independent study or other project together, or if you've been a successful lab tutor for a few quarters, or if you're applying to the ICS Honors Program. See the "Guidelines" section below.
If you've just taken one introductory class from me, especially if it was ICS 31, I'm not your best choice as a recommender. You shouldn't pick me just because you think I'm a nice guy and approachable enough to ask. Especially for CS graduate school (and especially for Ph.D. programs in departments that are "better" than ours), you want recommenders who know your work well—preferably advanced, independent, or research-oriented work—and can describe it first-hand. If you've taken an introductory class or two with me and gotten As, that's great, but that doesn't give the recommendation reader much information about how well you'll do at the graduate level. Those Ph.D. program admissions committees want recommenders who can say you've worked on research or other projects and carried them through to completion (brilliantlly, if possible). If your recommendation is going to be based on classwork, it's best that it be upper division classwork in an area you're interested in pursuing in grad school.
Guidelines for the people I'm writing for: Since I've taught large classes for many years,
I receive many recommendation requests.
If I agree to write you a letter, these guidelines will help me be most effective:
- Give me enough lead time.
If you do have a last-minute need for a letter,
I'll try to accommodate it, but I'd prefer to have
at least two weeks' advance notice. Also, it will make both of us feel more secure if you drop me an Email message three days before the first letter is due, just to make sure it got sent out. Further reminders aren't helpful.
- Give me the vital statistics.
At a minimum, remind me of the details of our
association: Which course(s) in which quarter(s)
did you take, tutor, or TA?
This helps me find your records and those of your class.
It's really important, especially during the season when
many recommendations are due, that I have this information
in writing, right along with the other materials listed below.
(Don't just tell me in person; write down each course and each quarter and send it to me in one message with everything you're sending.)
- Give me details.
The more information I have, the better.
Copies of your resume or statement of purpose or unofficial transcripots are helpful.
Better still would be to
help me recall any particularly good questions
you asked in class, any conversations we had outside of class, any
particularly interesting projects you've done, any teaching evaluations you have, or any other details
that I may have forgotten—these will help flesh out your recommendation. This is important for people I haven't seen in a while,
but it's also useful if I know you well and see you often;
I still may not remember specific details of our early association.
- Give me everything in one Email message. When the time comes for me to write your letters (and everyone else's), it's just too hard to search around for paper or multiple Email messages. I need one message, clearly labeled as coming from you, that contains whatever information you're providing me in text or attachments. Also, be prepared to submit all your applications on line around the same time, even if the due dates span a few months. I want to write and submit all your letters in one sitting, not have additional letter requests come in at various times over a three-month period.
- 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 school has its own form and its own process, even though they're now on line. 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
indicates 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.
References without letters: I'm also glad to entertain requests to serve as an employment reference
or other reference that doesn't require that I write
Most of the same guidelines apply: When you get in touch
with me to ask, give me as much information as you can.
David G. Kay,