Requests for recommendation letters

Matt Zucker, Spring 2016

The longer I spend as a professor, the more recommendation letters I'm asked to write. After discussing all of the topics below in person and/or via email a few dozen times, I finally decided to capture all of these thoughts in one web page.

What kinds of students get good recommendation letters?

I'm generally content to write recommendations for my students, but it's easier if you have done one (or hopefully more) of the following:

If your request for a recommendation is the first meaningful interaction we've ever had, I'm unlikely to write you a great letter, even if you've gotten a good grade in my class.

What supporting information can I provide?

If you want me to write for you, please send me a link to a Google Drive or Dropbox folder containing:

The last item can take the form of a couple of paragraphs of prose, or even just a bulleted list. You can think of it as an opportunity to remind me about particular projects/assignments/exams you've turned in, conversations we've had, or strengths of yours that you think I'd be qualified to discuss. I'm also interested in hearing you articulate how you think the program or opportunity would benefit you or advance your career goals. Finally, this exercise gives me a picture of the way you market and/or promote yourself, so my letter can agree nicely with your personal statements or application essays.

In addition, please fill out this form once for each program you are applying to.

Below, I've supplied some example requests for recommendations that I have found particularly useful or informative in the past (personally identifying information has been redacted).

Sample request #1

This email was written by a student who was interested in a particular REU, but the information/perspective it conveys is pretty useful, independent of the REU the student had in mind.

Good afternoon Professor,

Attached is my resume.

I plan to double major in XXXXXXXXXX and Engineering, concentrating in electrical and computer engineering at Swarthmore, and continue engineering study after.

I'm hoping to experience working in an engineering context outside of the classroom, and get a feel for the engineering experience, doing research in electrical engineering or in computation and neural systems, both topics I'm very likely to pursue further. I have very much enjoyed E15, the introduction to computer systems, the study of electric circuits, and would very much enjoy delving deeper into these areas through direct study and experience with them. I worked for ITS last summer and this semester, gaining experience troubleshooting electronic devices, and am excited about gaining more experience in the hardware and other end of these devices.

Regarding my performance in E15, I received 100% on the first exam, check pluses on five of the homework assignments we have received thus far. and 90% or above on all of the labs we have received.

The XXXXXXXX REU program aside from its research component, assists students in planning and thinking about their time after their undergraduate years.

The program description cites "weekly seminars by XXXXXXXXX faculty & XXXXXXXX scientists and engineers," as well as "an academic and processional development series on developing a research career, graduate school admissions, and other topics of interest to future researchers."

I'm a first-generation college student, and would very much benefit from such preparatory information, in addition to the research experience.

Please let me know if there is any other information I can provide. Thank you for your help, and have a wonderful semester!


Sample request #2

This was written by a student who wanted a recommendation for an internally-awarded study abroad program.

Hi Matt,

Thank you again for writing the reference!

I've attached my letter of interest which explains my motivation for studying abroad. The letter is about the XXXXXXX program specifically, but the ideas apply to a more general desire to go abroad. It can be summarized in three main parts: the opportunity to take environmental engineering courses beyond availabilities at Swarthmore, understanding the intersection of policy and engineering beyond the narrow scope of Philadelphia, and more generally learning to interact in an entirely new place with new people without the shared experience of speaking the same language or going to school in the same cultural setting.

As far as strengths go, the first would be my ability to adjust to new situations independently. I have developed this strength somewhat from having moved multiple times growing up, but more importantly by coming to Swarthmore. Before arriving, I didn't know anyone who had gone to Swarthmore in my personal life nor did I have any local family or friends in the area. This was especially daunting as I was coming from XXXXX XXXXXX, which places a huge emphasis on family ties. I had to quickly learn how to simultaneously meet new people without any prior connections, seek out resources to help the transition go smoothly, and adjust to the challenge of college-level work. The transition from XXXXX to Pennsylvania might not be quite as drastic as the one from the United States to XXXXXXX, but I think it helped me develop a very important skill in adjusting to a new environment while still making my studies and work a priority.

Another characteristic that I think is both a strength and a motivation is that I don't take universals for granted. From this, I have a strong curiosity for the way systems work and where both cultural and technological phenomena come from. Specifically, this comes out as a strength in my ability to interact with people from different backgrounds and also learn about different subjects, whether they are concepts of environmental engineering and policy or a culture's history. As I can easily recognize the limitations of my own experiences and previous studies, I can readily seek out information in a new environment and learn more deeply about a new subject or person.

I hope this helps and if you have any other questions please let me know!