Rules for Letters of Recommendation, amended

I'm always surprised to learn that some people don't have rules for letters of recommendation. Rules are a must, both for "recommender" and "recommendee." I learned this practice from Dr. Michael Bernhard, who always promised me that if I gave him one month's notice, the letter would be done and on time. He also taught me that academics respond well when given an email reminder a  week and a day before the due date. You will see that I have incorporated his ideas into my rules.

I wonder how many hours of man power are lost communicating these rules informally when they could just be set in stone. So here they are. Set in stone. 

If you want me to write you a letter of recommendation, follow these rules perfectly:

1. Contact me with at least one month's notice and ask if I can write you a letter.  If you ask me in person, send an email later that day to remind me I have committed. I keep a spreadsheet of my letters, so if I tell you that I will do it in person, I need the email to make sure it is entered into my spreadsheet.

2. You will receive an email from me committing to write the letter. If you do not receive this email, you must repeat step one. 

3. You then send me an email with all of the following:

a. an actual NAME to whom the letter should be addressed and a PHYSICAL ADDRESS, even if the letter will be turned in electronically. A proper letter heading requires having both a NAME and an ADDRESS. I will not look for this name or address myself. You must do it. 

b. a brief description of what this award, scholarship, research, graduate program, study abroad, etc would mean to you and your long-term goals. Yes, I can read the description of the award on the website but THESE THINGS ARE NOT SELF EVIDENT. I do not know what your personal interest is in the program/fellowship/etc. 

c. Your resume. If you do not have one you must make one. Not a silly one. Go to the career center and have them help you. Ask your friends. Look at examples online. Make a proper resume. If you send me a silly one, I will think you are not taking this seriously and that you do not understand professional development. 

d. the deadline the letter is due.  

4. You will then receive an email confirming receipt of the previous email. If you do not receive it within two or three business days, resend the email. 

5. Send me an email the week before the deadline to ask me if I've sent the letter (unless I've already emailed you to tell you the letter was sent). The week before a letter is due, you have full permission to be ANNOYING. You can email me every day if you want. I will never intentionally forget a letter, so if you haven't heard from me you should nag just to be sure! It is actually a kindness. 

A few other things:

- I almost always turn in the letter myself. This is necessary for confidentiality. On very rare occasions will you ever see the letter physically. 

-Once I have written a letter for you, I will keep it on file. In some circumstances, I may be able to submit the letter for you on less than a month's notice. You have permission to follow the above rules even if you do not yet have a program in mind, but you want me to have a letter on file. In this case give me a general idea of what you anticipate needing letters for. 

-I am happy to write letters for students, but keep in mind that this may not be the best option for you. I am not a well-known or prestigious scholar (yet! ;). If you have taken one of my classes, I likely know you well, but it is ALMOST ALWAYS better to have a well-known scholar write your letters. If you need three letters, and two are written by well known scholars, it may then make sense to have a third letter from me if I know you well. Never turn in multiple letters from graduate students or young professors for graduate programs or prestigious grants. It will hurt your chances.  One is the maximum, in my opinion.

-If you are in an upper division class with me, consider the possibility that 10, 15 or maybe even 20 of your colleagues may also ask me for a letter with the same or a similar due date. Ask me EARLY if you have concerns that I will get multiple requests. 

Finally, if you are applying to graduate school in the social sciences or the humanities, you must confirm that you have read this blog post before I will write your letter.