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December 2018
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Letters of Recommendation

Once again, I find myself in the position of asking people to write letters of recommendation.  My usual MO for this is to first ask if they are willing to do so. I make it clear that I will provide them with a template letter which they can then modify as they see fit – after all it is their letter, but it is to my benefit.  Thus, I want to minimize the hassle for them and ensure that the letter is strong.

In that context, I ran across this awesome post on Quora by Dr. Richard Muller about what he asks students to write up to assist him.  The gist of this was his requirement that someone give him an interview:

My first step is to interview the student.  I ask to be reminded of every time in the past we had interacted, if at all. Normally I mention these times in my letter; it helped the reader to recognize that the student was active.

Then I ask for any things that the student worried about, bad grades in other courses, for example. We then discussed them, and in my letter I might mention the fact that I was familiar with it (with a D, for example, in another class) and I would describe why (if true) I didn’t think that should be used as a negative. (Typically the student had a good reason.)

I ask the student to write me a page describing what he thinks of himself/herself, and what the student does outside of classwork. That’s based on my experience that those reading my letter often like candidates more if the student was well-rounded and personable.

I thought this was brilliant and plan on using this moving forward.