How to Receive a Good Reference Letter

I often get requests from undergraduate and graduate students for a reference letter to accompany their application for a teaching position in particular, other job, or scholarship. Writing a reference letter takes me many hours; nonetheless, I enjoy helping keen and bright students to succeed in their academic and career aspirations. I will be happy to write a letter for you but only if I think it will actually help your application, which normally means that:

  • as an undergraduate student, you must have obtained at least a B- grade in my course, and I know you personally by name;
  • as a graduate student, you have worked with me on a project or as a TA/TM.

Otherwise, my reference letter will only mention a grade or contain vague details (read letter A), which from my own experience evaluating applications and references will be of virtually no benefit to you, no matter how good your grades might be. If I know about you over a long period of time, your abilities, or your other activities, then I can write a reference letter that can have a much bigger impact (read letter B).

In order to maximize your chances of obtaining a strong letter from me, you should take preparatory steps long before you actually need it:

  1. Think ahead. Cultivate your references: Start thinking about your need for reference letters early on in your studies. As you take courses and meet your profs, or participate as a TA/TM in a workshop, tutorial or online course, think about who you would most like to write a reference for you.
  2. Stand out from the crowd: If you are an undergraduate student, perform well in class, but (just as important) demonstrate your desire and ability to learn. Or, if you are a TA/TM in my workshop/course, then be part of a team and contribute in all aspects of your TA/TM-ship.
  3. Get to know me: Visit my office hours or chat with me in the hallway, and share your mathematical interests and your career or academic aspirations.

Once you plan to submit an application and the deadline is approaching, this is what you should do when you ask me (or anyone else) for a reference:

  1. Give advance warning: Don't leave your letter request to the last minute. Leave me at least several weeks lead time.
  2. Provide supporting information: Send me your CV, unofficial transcript, and any other material that you submit along with your application. Include the job ad or any other information about what specifically you are applying for. Be sure to remind me about deadlines.
  3. Tell me about YOU: Make sure I know why you are applying, what your goals are, and anything you would like me to say.
  4. Be grateful. And stay in touch: Thank me in person or at least in a brief note. Follow up by letting me know whether or not your application was successful. Stay in touch, since you never know when you'll have to ask me for another reference letter.