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Let’s say you did well in an upper-division class with a professor. You enjoyed the class and also enjoyed learning the material. That might seem like it would make the professor a shoo-in as a good recommender for you for your graduate school application. Here’s why that might not be so! It’s important that someone gives you the full scoop on all this. For instance, if I wrote a student such a letter, I might even be doing them a disservice by taking the slot of someone whose word would go farther.

If you have heard the term “DWIC” before, then you’ll know what I’m about to say. Either way, please do make sure you see Paulette’s thoughts.The point is that “did well in my class” letters don’t count for much because everyone who submits an application did well in the class that they would have had with their letter writer. Anyone should be able to muster that kind of a letter, and so it doesn’t help distinguish the so-so candidates from the great ones. It’s basically table stakes.

Graduate schools typically want comprehensive letters of recommendation that give detailed, nuanced evaluations of your strengths and potential as a student. A letter that simply states that you did well in class doesn’t give much insight into your intellectual ability, research skills, leadership qualities, or any other relevant attributes that graduate schools are looking for in applicants. Good letters generally come from people who’ve seen you work on more long term projects, in either a small-group reading class, or an independent study or a research project. Sometimes this could be a co-op/internship supervisor, depending upon where you did your co-op/internship. A one-off professor can’t offer that kind of perspective, because they didn’t get a chance to work with you in that manner.

If you already have all that other stuff covered, and just need like a third letter to fill out your set, then that’s probably a better fit! Another important caveat: an un-tenured professor probably has less credibility than a tenured one. When could a non-research letter go further than an ordinary DWIC? When I’ve seen an individualized project or two that you’ve worked on, and we’ve talked together several times about that project. When I’ve reaching out for help in a new course. If I can speak to you as a TA or tutor as well as a student. If I’m writing a letter for a masters program vs a phd, or a local scholarship vs a national one.

Be sure and let me know (1) what specifically you’re hoping for me to speak to, (2) how I can best help fit into your overall letters and application, and (3) tell me what kind of a program is this for. MS CS ? PhD CS? MFA, DDS, or MBA? A scholarship? It helps to know what I’m aiming for.

It will also help if you can provide:

  • A transcript
  • A résumé/vita, with all of your pertinent info in it
  • Anything in particular you’d like me to try and emphasize.
  • A(nother) link to the scholarship/program information (and if they have multiple, which one you’re applying to!)
  • And also tell me about your other letter writers.