Pawel Danielewicz: Recommendation Letters
This page was inspired by the one written by Brian O'Shea.
Writing good letters requires significant effort. The degree of assistance from your side is likely to be correlated with the strength of the letter.
I need to know about the need to write a letter and be provided with the information discussed below at least 3 weeks ahead of the deadline for submitting the letter. I need to know why you are asking me to write the recommendation letter and not somebody else. Needless to say, I need to know you at some level or be knowledgeable about what you are doing for the letter to make sense. The more I know about you, in the context of your application, and about what you are applying for, the more convincing the 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 the materials you submit are in an obvious disagreement, the recipient will doubt their credibility.
I need to know what you are applying for. You can e.g. help clarify it with a link to any announcement that prompted you to apply. I need to know where to submit the letter and who the letter should be directed to: i.e. name and position of the person, of committee or school, in this order of preference, and a street address. I want my letter to be personal and I do not want to start it 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 list them. The application process is a time to gloat. Please highlight in the communication your particular accomplishments whether or not directly related to the application and any characteristics that make you great. I may or may not share your enthusiasm, but your own view is a start - I may perceive other characteristics that can help your application succeed. Anecdotes would be helpful, particularly when pertaining to our shared experiences, such as a particularly successful class project or a breakthrough in joint research.
If you were a student in my class, please remind me what class that was.
If you have authored papers and their content and/or otherwise your research is pertinent to the application, please highlight what you think is most important, whether or not it is most cited. Often this is already included in the application materials. I may or not share your view, but in any case I am typically unable to go over every paper on your publication list and thoroughly analyze it. Unless your list is very short, it is not humanly possible to do that within the time I can delegate to my letter preparation. Even when you think that I follow your every paper, this might not be true.
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 securing funding, please mention it too. Knowledge of languages, participation in sports, involvement in arts, hobbies and community work can be relevant as far as my writing of a letter is concerned. Any hardship you had to work against can be relevant too.
I only write confidential letters. I will only write in a letter what I perceive to be true.
At times I found out that the person, asking me for a letter, 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 not to write a letter on your behalf ever again.
Other people writing on your behalf may have similar needs while being less explicit in spelling their needs out. You may benefit by sending whatever you prepared for me to the other writers as well.