References and Recommendation Letters

If you have taken a course with me (and you passed), I am happy to serve as a reference and/or to write you a recommendation letter. (The one exception is high school students who have taken my online course who seek recommendation letters for college applications. See below.) For those who are not familiar with the US usage of these terms:

You hereby have permission to use me as a reference. You do not need to to ask me first. Just, each time you use my name, send me an e-mail, reminding me who you are, and noting the organization/purpose of the reference. If they ever contact me (and, most times, they won’t), I will confirm that you are/were an excellent student of high moral character.

You may ask me for a recommendation letter, but that process requires much more work on your part.

  1. E-mail me to ask. I may want to speak with you. We can coordinate via e-mail. Or I may decide that I know you well enough that a meeting is not necessary. I reserve the right to try and talk you out of law or business school.
  2. Once we confirm that I am writing you a letter, send me a follow up e-mail with many, many specifics about what we have done together. What course(s) have you taken? When did you take it? What grade did you get? What class positions did you volunteer for? Did I ever highlight your work for the class? What did you do your final project on? And so on. The more details you give me, the better your letter will be. Do not rely on me to remember your work.
  3. Be as complete and straightforward as possible, even if you think your grade for the course was bad or your final project unimpressive. I will use my judgment to craft the letter to maximize your chances of getting the position.
  4. The most important part of this e-mail is your description of your final project. Write a full paragraph or two, with complete sentences and flowing prose. I won’t just copy/paste all your words, but the better your reporting, the better my letter will be. Do not count on me to remember anything.
  5. Also, in that same e-mail, include information about what you are applying for and any other background on you. Everything that I need is in this (second) e-mail. Ideally, this will also include a link for me to use to submit your letter. Sometimes, that is not possible. If so, please try to get me that link as soon as possible.
  6. If, for some reason, there is a big gap between when you sent that second e-mail and when you are able to provide the link to submit the letter, make sure to check in with me about when you expect that the link will arrive.
  7. Keep an eye on whether or not the organization has received my letter. If they haven’t received it by a week before the due date, send me a polite reminder. If we are one day away, send me a desperate e-mail. It is your responsibility to keep track of whether or not I have submitted the letter.
  8. After you receive confirmation that I have sent the letter, you should (obviously!) send me a brief e-mail thank you.

And that is it! (But note that I will update this post over time.) I am always happy to help out my students, however I can.

Except in unusual circumstances, I do not write recommendation letters for high school students applying to college. The main reason is that colleges do not care about the opinions of anyone other than your high school teachers. So, you are much better off with a letter from a teacher than one from me, or from any other non-teacher. Why, you ask? Colleges have learned that people like me have no incentive to tell the truth. Why wouldn’t I claim in every recommendation letter that “Student X is a genius! She is the smartest person I have ever met” and so on? The answer, sadly, is that I have no reason to be truthful and every reason to exaggerate. After all, I will probably never write another recommendation letter to this college again.

The same reasoning does not apply to high school teachers. They are engaged in a repeated game vis-à-vis colleges. They can’t make outrageous claims this year because they want the colleges to take their recommendation letters seriously next year, and the year after that, and so on.

How can you thank me? Easy! First, tell people about my class. Second, make a calendar entry right now for exactly 10 years from today: “E-mail Preceptor at to thank him for that recommendation letter and let him know how I am doing.” Good teachers love hearing from their students, especially many years later.