Recommendation Letters Policy

Should you ask me? What should you provide? How much time do I need?

(Please read this entire post before contacting me.)

I remember finding and cultivating references being one of the hardest things to do as an undergraduate student, so I hope this helps you.

As of 2017, I estimate that I have taught over 850 students. Every term that number will keep growing. Compared to many teachers this is a tiny number. But for my memory it's rather a lot, and it is a real challenge to remember you after you leave my classes, even if you excelled. This is why it is extremely important to be as active as possible during the time(s) you are in my classroom, and to maintain an active correspondence with me once you leave.

Every September or October I am contacted by at least one former student, whom I haven't seen or heard from in years, to write a letter . In almost all of these cases I have to decline because I just don't know the student anymore, and the timeframe provided is simply too short.

What do I need from you in order to prevent this situation? Read on...

There are two kinds of reference requests I receive: 'academic references' and 'other references.' I am willing to write either kind, if I feel that I can add something to your application profile.

  • 'Academic references' = graduate school applications,  admission to study abroad programs, etc. These are the easiest for me to write because the receiving organizations/institutions are primarily concerned with your academic performance, about which I have something to say.
  • 'Other references' = employment, character references for the bar, and so on. These are nearly impossible for me to write unless you have taken the time to make yourself known to me. Even so, these are still difficult to write, so do not be surprised if I have to say no anyway. 

I will not agree to write a reference for any student that I cannot say unequivocally good things about. Unfortunately, if I just don't know enough about you and your work, I can't say yes. And believe me, you wouldn't want me writing you a reference if all I had to say was, "Yes, she was in my class, wrote an A paper, and was never absent." B.O.R.I.N.G.

So, on to the details...

Timeline for requests: I will not write a first reference letter for any application deadline that is less than four weeks away. If I have been writing you letters for multiple applications, then subsequent requests can come as short as one week in advance. Again, though, if I have not yet written you a reference letter, you must provide four weeks before the first deadline for me to draft a letter. Most likely I will have to consult my records, re-read your work, and perhaps even consult with you more than once to fill in details for things I cannot remember. 

I will consider academic reference requests from: any student who has written an Honours Thesis under my supervision; any student who scored a B+ or higher on an Independent Study paper; or any student who performed in one or more of my courses at a grade of B+ or higher. An A- or higher is preferable, since most academic references require that I compare you to all other students I have taught. The more times you have taken my courses, the better I can write for you. If you are still completing an HT or ISM, I will certainly consider a request.

I will consider 'other reference' requests from: any student who has written an Honours Thesis under my supervision; any student who has completed an Independent Study paper for me; or any student who performed in one of my courses at a grade of B or higher. If you are still completing an HT, ISM, or course, I will certainly consider a request.

Many schools and organizations give you a choice whether to waive access to my letter or not. Always select this option when you are filling out applications. Most schools or employers will not take a reference letter seriously unless you waive access. Although my general rule is to only write letters for students that I fully support, if I ever feel that my assessment of your academic performance will do damage to your application, then I will discuss the letter with you before submitting. 

Finally, you must contact me to check if I will serve as a reference for you before you submit any specific requests for letters. If I agree to act as a reference for you, then you should move on to the following steps.

So, what if I agree to act as a reference? What do I need from you? It is extremely important that you follow these instructions for EVERY request.

You should send me one email for each school/organization/employer to which you are applying. In the subject line of the email, please include the name of the school/organization/employer and "Due dd/mm/yy". This is essential for me to schedule multiple requests from multiple students. I repeat for emphasis: send me a single email for every letter you wish me to write/submit. (Even if it means sending me 50 emails!)

In the body of the email, re-state the name of the school/organization/employer and the due date. Also provide the full name, address, and links directly to the program/position.

In the body of the email, detail any specific instructions provided by the program/school/etc. Especially details on how letters should be received. Should I send the letter directly to the program? Should I submit electronically? (How, or to whom?) Should I send sealed letters to you? (If so, I'll need your physical mailing address and plenty of time to mail you the letters.)

In the body of the email: If there is no statement of purpose and/or application letter (not all places require one), then please write one or two paragraphs (at most) explaining why you feel this specific program or position interests you, and what makes you well suited to it.

In the body of the email: A short autobiographical statement of one or two paragraphs (at most) that tells me where you are from, where and for what you had me as a teacher, what you've accomplished as a student (clubs, sports, other extracurriculars, GPA, awards, etc.), what kinds of things you find interesting (that will help me speak about you to whatever it is you're applying for), and what you hope to do with your future.

In the body of the email: A short description of the program you are applying for, including your research agenda or topic (for grad school) or responsibilities (for work, internship, etc).

In the body of the email: If you have graduated and some time has passed (more than a full semester), please include a short statement updating me on what you've been doing. You should include in this why you have chosen to either a) change career paths, or b) go back to school. 

Attach all necessary forms. If I have to fill out forms on the web, make sure there are links directly to the proper web form. (Do NOT link to a page where I have to download a form. You should do this yourself and attach it to the document.)

Attach copies of papers or exams - preferably with my comments written on them.

Attach a copy of your statement of purpose and/or application letter.

Attach an up-to-date CV or resume.

And perhaps most importantly, if you wish to maintain a good relationship with me after all of this... let me know how things work out! If you get accepted to a school, let me know. If you are accepted to study abroad, let me know - and definitely contact me at some point to let me know how it's going (pictures are good too!). If nothing works out for you, it's important for me to know that too. If I never hear from you, but you contact me a year later for more letters, I'll probably say no. So, no matter what happens, keep me updated!


While I've had the idea to write this up for a while, thanks to Jen Jack Gieseking for providing the impetus and the format (and...most of the content).