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Recommendation Letters

I took a course with you. Can you write me a recommendation letter?

If you’re applying to graduate school, the most effective letters are those written by people who have worked closely and directly with you, and who can provide specific examples that speak to your potential for doing research. If our only relationship is that you have taken a course from me, I can provide a letter that speaks to your performance in the course, but (obviously) not one that gives specific examples of your research-related skills based on having worked closely with you. Therefore, you should think carefully about whether this is what you want. You can see similar advice in the UC Berkeley Letter Service’s Guidelines for Letter Writers.

Because effective letters make some attempt to compare the candidate to others in their peer group, your standing in the course will be part of the letter, even though the letter itself does not necessarily reveal your specific course grade or ranking. I will let you know what your overall standing was, and you can decide if you do or do not want a letter that is based on that information.

For industry letters, the above factors are much less important. A letter based on solid course work is much more likely to be effective as an industry reference than as a grad school letter.

Finally, I always assume the candidate will waive their right to read the letter. I am not comfortable writing letters that aren’t confidential. If I do not believe I can write you a positive letter, I will not agree to write one at all. Thank you for understanding that since we (faculty) are being called upon to write letters all the time, our own reputations as letter writers are very important, otherwise our letters become useless to everyone including the students who ask for them.
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