Pawel Danielewicz: Recommendation Letters

A page prepared by Brian O'Shea inspired me to write this one.

Writing good letters requires much effort.  The degree of assistance from your side correlates with the letter's strength.

Please inform me about the need to write the letter and provide the information below at least three weeks before the deadline for submitting the requested letter. I need to know why you are asking me, not somebody else, to write the letter. I need to know you at some level or know what you do for my letter to make sense. The more I know about you, in the context of your application and what you are applying for, the more convincing my letter can be.

I need all the materials that you are submitting with your application. The memory fades, and the materials can refresh it. They help me understand what you aim at in your application. If my letter and your submitted materials disagree, the recipient will doubt their credibility.

I need to know what you are applying for. You can help clarify it with a link to an announcement that prompted you to apply. I need to know where to submit the letter and to whom to direct the letter: i.e., the name and position of the person, committee, or school, in this order of preference, and a street address. I want my letter to be personal and do not want to start with "Dear Email Address" or "Dear Upload Link."

If this is not completely obvious from the supplied application materials, please clarify why you think you deserve what you apply for. If there are any specific things you want me to mention in my letter, please state them. The application process is the time to gloat. In the communication, please highlight your particular accomplishments, whether or not directly related to your application, and any characteristics that make you great. I may or may not share your enthusiasm. Still, your view is a start - I may perceive other factors that can help your application succeed. Anecdotes would be helpful, particularly about our shared experiences, such as a successful class project or a breakthrough in joint research.

If you were a student in my class, please remind me what that class was.

If the papers you co-authored or your research more broadly are pertinent to your application, please highlight what you think is the most important, whether or not it is the most cited.  Again, this might already be in your application materials, so you do not need to do it again in direct communication with me.  I may or may not share your view.  Still, I cannot go over every paper on your publication list and thoroughly study it.  Unless your list is concise, it is not humanly possible to do that within the time I can delegate to my letter preparation.  This might not be true even when you think I follow your every paper.

Presentations, teaching experience, and supervision of others usually matter.  If you were successful in organizing groups or meetings, please mention it.  If you were successful in securing funding, please mention it, too.  Knowledge of languages, participation in sports, arts, hobbies, and community work can be relevant to my letter writing.  Any hardship you had to work against can be relevant, too.

I only write confidential letters. (If you decide not to waive your right to view my recommendation in the application process, I will not supply that recommendation.) I will only write in the letter what I perceive to be true.

At times, I found out that a person asking me for a letter later gave up on applying but never bothered to notify me and made me write the letter in vain.  If you disrespect my time, I promise never to write a letter on your behalf again.

Other people writing on your behalf may have similar needs, but be less explicit in spelling them out.  You can also send whatever you prepared for me to the other letter writers.