Letter of Recommendation Guidelines
Thank you for studying with me. If you are reading this, it’s because you are interested in a letter of recommendation for graduate school. I am happy that our time together has influenced you to consider further work in the field and I am honored to help support your professional development. To ensure that I am the best person to write a letter on your behalf, and that the letter I write is as strong as possible for you, I have provided the following requirements for requesting a letter of recommendation from me.
1. You must have completed at least 2 courses with me before requesting a letter of recommendation. This requirement is important, because I will not be able to speak about your long-term research abilities if I have only interacted with you a few times and have only graded a few instances of your work. In graduate school, you will generally carry out a project over the course of several years under the supervision of an advisor, and it will not be helpful for that advisor to receive a letter from me that only speaks about your ability in 1 class and a few short-term assignments. Another way to think of this first requirement: ask for letters of recommendation from professors that you have taken multiple classes from, because these will be the professors that are best positioned to speak about your long-term abilities and skills over time. If you are a freshman or relatively early in your studies, you can think of this as an important strategy for your undergraduate years. That is, during your time here you should develop long-term relationships (by taking multiple courses with the same professor, or working in a lab for several years with the same professor, etc.) with at least 3 faculty members. Having letters of support from professors that have worked with you longer will be better for you than having letters of support from professors that have only had minimal contact with you. I hope this is clear and makes good sense.
2. You must have completed an essay for me, received my feedback on it, and prepared a revised draft based on my feedback. This is somewhat related to the first point. Since long-term research is the focus of graduate school, I will be able to write you a better letter of recommendation if I see how you develop a hypothesis or idea for a research project, how you conduct your research, how your finished first draft looks, how you respond to constructive feedback, and how you make use of that constructive feedback for your subsequent work. By working on a research paper under my supervision, and going through the revise and resubmit process with me, I will be better able to speak about your ability to take feedback and improve your research over time. By going through several drafts of a manuscript with me, we can also get that manuscript better prepared for an undergraduate conference, undergraduate journal, or as your polished writing sample for graduate school. Like I’ve said numerous times to all my students, one of the best things you can do as an undergraduate is to write and continuously polish one piece of written work that you can use to showcase in your various applications. The writing sample is to an aspiring graduate student what a demo tape is to an aspiring musician.
3. You must provide me with a written summary of your relevant coursework and accomplishments, as well as your CV. I will be able to write you a more detailed and powerful letter of recommendation if you provide me with all the relevant information. This will also give me an opportunity to see the status of your CV and offer helpful recommendations.
4. If you have satisfied conditions 1, 2, and 3, please email me to set up an appointment to discuss the programs you are applying to. In our Zoom meeting, I can help you think of programs that are the best fit for you given your background and interests. From this conversation I will also gain a better understanding of what you want out of graduate school, which I can use as I prepare your letter of recommendation.
If you have not satisfied conditions 1, 2, and 3, it’s not that I don’t want to support you (I can assure you I want to support all of my students, regardless of their current experience level), it’s just that we will not be in a strong position yet to produce a valuable letter of support for you. No matter how much I like working with you, it’s just not valuable for a graduate school committee to read a letter saying how much I enjoyed working with you in one class on two assignments, since that is not a substantive letter for them to make a long-term decision on. The bright side is that my requirements are open and straightforward, so I am willing to provide a letter of recommendation to anyone that satisfies these requirements. If you need another semester or two to get through the requirements, no worries, we can create a plan to work through your checklist of requirements while staying as productive as possible for the next round of grad school applications. If you miss an application cycle, you can always use this time to earn extra money for the move you will have to make, or to improve your research and programming skills (things that will make your life easier as a grad student).
Remember that, in addition to 3 or 4 letters of recommendation, you will also want the following components for your application: (a) an excellent writing sample, (b) relevant research skills (lab and programming experience, calculus and statistics, etc.), (c) strong grades (a good overall pattern as well as especially high marks in courses relevant to the graduate program you’re applying to), and (d) presentation experience (at a conference would be great). Not all of these components are necessary, but the more you fill out your application in these ways the better you will likely do with your applications.
Good luck everyone! I look forward to supporting you in your professional endeavors.
Adam M. Croom, Ph.D.