Recommendation Letters

The common thread to all the advice below can be summarized as follows:

Many students think that having a letter with a well-known professor’s name on it will always help their application (or job reference, etc.)

That is not true.

What is helpful is a letter from someone who knows your work well and can speak to specific details about it. If that person happens to be well known, even better.

But a nonspecific letter from someone who doesn’t know your work well will not strengthen your application, and may even make it weaker. (“Couldn’t this student find someone who knows their work better to write a letter?”)

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.

I’m in the process of taking a course with you right now. Can you write a letter?

See the advice above. Even if you’re doing fairly well in the course, it’ll be hard to know how you really did until after the semester is over. I would really, really, really prefer not to do this. If you insist, I will do it, but I will strongly advise you that such a letter is nearly worthless as part of an application and may even weaken your application. As flattering as it is that you think having my name in your application will help you, it is simply not true.

Can you write me a recommendation letter for the 5th year Masters in CS program?

Admission to the 5th year MS CS program requires a letter from a faculty member who is willing to be your Masters project advisor. I can only write that letter if we already have a research relationship and/or have been working together in some nontrivial capacity.

If that’s not the case for you, I can still potentially write a supplementary letter as above, but that letter will not include a commitment to be your MS advisor, and you should be aware that you will need such a letter from someone else to be considered for the program.

Can you help me polish/give me comments on my Personal Statement?

Here are the most common pieces of feedback I give on these documents—and yes, the PS does matter:

1.  Be specific. For example, when discussing your experience at an internship, don’t say: “I had a variety of tasks dealing with automation, databases, and data collection.” Instead, give an example of a specific  task that was (eg) hard to learn, hard to apply, a stretch for you, particularly valuable to the company, etc.  A good litmus test you can apply to every sentence in your PS is to ask:  “If this sentence were copied into another applicant’s PS, would it probably be true?”  if the answer is yes, that sentence is probably not specific enough to be worth including.  You need to write stuff that differentiates you from other applicants.  This is true for both discussing your school experiences and your work experiences.

2. Write well. Perhaps your writing skills aren’t as strong as you’d like; perhaps English isn’t your first language.  But even if there is no issue understanding what you are trying to say, first impressions do count, and writing is important. I’m not sure if there are people in the Writing Program that can help, but pay for personal assistance if necessary. Note that I’m not suggesting you have someone write the PS for you! The content and voice must be your own (and if you are subsequently interviewed, it will be immediately obvious if they aren’t). Style, grammar, and spelling checks should be the last step after the content is finalized.

3. Don’t fawn; contribute. Avoid gushing sentences such as “It has always been my dream to attend school X, work with professor Y, etc.” No one cares. The question they do care about is: what will you add to the mix? What benefits will you contribute to your fellow students that make you a valuable addition to the program? Corollary: When describing life-changing experiences you’ve had, remember that most people who don’t know you (including probably all application reviewers) don’t care about how your life was changed. They care about how those experiences  could benefit the greater academic community if you are admitted. If your letter spends time discussing what you can bring to your fellow students, it will be more compelling. If it spends time trying to convince the reader how remarkable you are, or how badly you want to attend this school, without proposing how you will enrich the program for others too, it will more likely fail.