Letters of Recommendation
Neerja Thakkar graduated from Dartmouth in 2019 with a BA in Computer Science and Mathematics. For the past year, she was doing computational photography research in Spain on a Fulbright research scholarship, and in Fall 2020 she will be starting her PhD in EECS at UC Berkeley.
Letters of recommendation are probably the single most important component of a PhD application, and critical for many other purposes. Getting strong letters of recommendation consists of both forming strong relationships with professors and asking in the right way. In this post, I’ll break down how I got to know professors who ended up writing for me for scholarships, fellowships and grad school. I’ll also talk about how to approach asking for a letter.
Forming relationships with professors
Doing well in your classes and going to office hours will give your professors a good impression of you. However, for a stronger letter, you should try to get to know a professor even better outside of class. This can be through research, being a TA, or another type of project. Here are the interactions I had with some professors that wrote letters for me throughout college:
- Did research with for 2 years
- Took 2 hard classes with, and then TAed one of those classes
- Worked with on writing the solutions manual of a textbook during an off-term
- Took 2 classes with, then did a year of research with
Professors love to see students who take initiative and go beyond what is expected. If you think you might want to get a letter from a certain professor, put in extra effort in their class, especially in areas such as a final project where you can stand out. If you’re working on research or another project outside of class with a professor, show up to meetings prepared and try to make consistent progress. Don’t be afraid to ask a professor how they feel about your work - it’s better to get feedback early on and then act on it.
I was lucky to go to a smaller school where professors prioritized teaching, so this definitely doesn’t apply to every professor, but in my experience many professors are very happy to answer questions about their field, research careers, and grad school. Telling them about your goals and ambitions helps them get to know you better, and has also been extremely helpful - a lot of advice I provide in this blog was learned from professors.
Asking for a Letter
- Give your letter writers ample time to write for you - especially around busy letter-writing times, a couple of months is ideal. Be sure to remind your writers about the letter 1 month before the deadline, and again a week before if they haven’t submitted it
- Check the personal webpage of your letter writer before you ask them for a letter. Some professors have specific guidelines for letters, ranging from how much time they need to write it to who they will write for to what information they want from you when writing a letter.
- Reach out to ask (reminding them of who you are/how you know them if they might not remember), and when they say yes, respond with your CV, a summary of what program and kind of research you are applying for, and a list of things you would like them to talk about. You should absolutely mention small details or accomplishments that feel minor which the professor might not recall - the worst thing that can happen is that the professor chooses to not mention it in the letter
- When I was applying for fellowships/grad school, I made a Google drive folder that had my CV, GRE scores, transcript, and drafts of essays for my letter writers to refer to as they wanted to. I also pointed out sections where I wrote about the work I was doing with them, so that they didn’t have to read my entire essays, and to ensure consistency among what we were writing