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Letters of recommendation can be a crucial part of applications to jobs and graduate schools. A detailed letter from a former instructor is particularly helpful in applying to graduate programs. Requesting letters involves a few steps that let the potential writer know who you are, where you are going and why you deserve a recommendation.

Each potential recommender may have specific needs to write for you, but here is a general guide to requesting letters.

  1. Prepare documents that will support the recommendation (statement of purpose, cover letter, Resume/CV, research interests, career plans, a paper composed for the instructor). These help the potential writer identify your strengths and academic/career direction.
  2. In your initial request, briefly detail the programs to which you are applying and remind the potential writer of relevant experiences in their class (e.g. a piece of work you’ve done for/with them).
  3. Ask potential recommenders if they need additional material to write for you. Some recommendation writers request descriptions of the programs to which you are applying, for example. Offer links to the programs to which you are applying.
  4. In large classes, reach out to your GSI (Graduate Student Instructor) or TA (Teaching Assistant) for the recommendation. Strong recommendations reflect deep familiarity with the student, and the lead professor may not have enough experience with your work to write the kind of letter you will need. A GSI or TA with whom you have a good relationship can offer such details.
  5. Ask about and use the letter-delivery system preferred by the potential recommender and/or admissions committee (Interfolio; direct emails from the institution, etc.).
  6. Many professors advise that you waive the right to see the recommendation. Doing so gives the letter more credibility in the eyes of admissions committees.
  7. Give your writer 6 weeks notice before the recommendation due date.

The first email to your potential recommender should be fairly brief (1-2 paragraphs) and offer enough information for the instructor to recall your work as a student. A link to major papers or projects you did for the course is often useful for both purposes. The reminder of who you are could also be a brief reference to a particularly memorable conversation during office hours or other unique experience with the instructor.

The point of the recommendation letter is to make you stand out from other applicants. Your recommendation request should do the same. Additional guidance from Cal’s career center can be found here.

Good luck with your applications!

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