Kyle's References FAQ
Answering "Will you be a reference for me?" since 2013
I get a lot of requests for references and recommendation letters at the end of the fall and during the spring semesters. I created this page to help answer the questions students have about recommendations. It seemed prudent for me to organize some common thoughts so that I could put my expectations all in one place and provide as many excellent references as possible.
Recommendation Letters | List as Reference | LinkedIn Skills
This involves me writing a nicely-formatted letter, then printing it out on our department letterhead. Then I either mail it or (more likely) scan and upload it somewhere. You'll usually need one of these if you're applying for a scholarship (here's a list of some Plymouth State scholarships), Research Experience for Undergraduates (REUs), grad school, summer internships, and even some jobs.
"Will you write a recommendation letter for me?"
The answer to this question is almost always "Yes". I really enjoy providing a reference for excellent students. If you're not certain whether you deserve such a thing, here are some reasons you might be excellent:
- You do really well in my classes. (An A- or better is usually good, but this also depends on the level of the course. For example, an A- in Intro Programming is not as impressive as a B in Algorithms.) The more courses you've taken from me, the more I can use that to write about you. Improvement over time is definitely something I would like to tell people you've done!
- You've been a highly-motivated assistant. Maybe you were a lab assistant or you supported my teaching in some other way that I've seen. I'll be able to comment on your enthusiasm, work ethic, and responsibility.
- You did a cool independent project with me. This could be a senior project or an independent study project. In this case, I really want to tell people about it!
"How much advance notice should I give you?"
A month is great. Two weeks usually works. One week is tough. I want to write the letter(s) so ask me anyways, just in case I can squeeze it in. If I don't have enough time and I have to turn you down, then I'm really sorry. If I've already written you a letter, then it's easy for me to write another one.
"How should I ask you?"
If I sent you to this site, then you probably already did. That's fine. If you haven't already sent me an email, please do. It's also a really good idea to make sure I put your name up on my markerboard. It's very easy for me to forget about these.
"What should I do after you agree to write it?"
I want to make your letter look nice, professional, and specific to what you're applying to. After going through this a bunch of times, I think the best idea is to create a Google Doc, with a bulleted list of all the things you want to apply to. For each of those things, include (in their own indented bullets):
- Name- Some name of the thing, e.g. "REU at Boston U about Banana Processing"
- Due Date- Due date for the letter. (Please organize them by due date.)
- Site- Give me the website for the thing, if one exists.
- Status- "Incomplete" I'll change this to "Submitted" when I've sent it.
- Physical Address- If you know the address of who gets it, I'll put that on it to make it look really nice. If it's a grad school application, that might be the address of the grad school office or the college or department. I like to do this even if it is electronically delivered. Definitely look at the department's webpage; it looks really good if it's addressed correctly to their building.
- Target- If you know who will be reading it, I'd rather put them (e.g. Graduate Admissions Committee or Scholarship Committee) than "To Whom it Concerns", so please give me that information too.
- Goal- What's the name of the position/scholarship/whatever you're trying to get? I want to put that in the letter too. For example, maybe it's the "Masters Program in Artifical Banana Processing". If it's a scholarship, is it (usually) awarded to just one person or to multiple people? I want to know whether to say "the" or "a(n)".
- Submission Instructions- What do I have to do when I have the letter ready? Usually they'll send me an email with instructions or there's already a link for me to follow or I just email it somewhere.
Then, just keep me up-to-date in emails as you add/change things.
Also, remind me about all the great things I should mention. In the document (and, preferrably, above the list of things you're applying to) add a list with all of these things:
- All the courses you took with me. (Please remind me when you took each course.)
- Amazing things you did in my classes. Possible things include:
- Writing perfect players for Data Structures projects (remind me how many)
- Completing "expert practice" problems in Intro Programming (again, how many)
- Fixing code issues (with incorporated pull requests) for my open source class code on GitHub.
- Got above an 90 on my Software Engineering final exam.
- Anything you did above-and-beyond is fair game.
- Normal successes in my classes: maybe you...
- Finished all the Intro Programming projects to completion
- Finished all the projects in Operating Systems
- Finished all the Software Engineering projects ahead of time.
- ...or something else I haven't listed here...
- Examples of working well with others. Did you work with partners three or more times in 2381? How many people did you work with? Did you finish Software Engineering in a team?
- Taking initiative. Did you organize review sessions for my exams? Did you help get your friends to come to lab?
- Relevant on-campus jobs. Are you a teaching assistant or lab assistant or evening tutor? Do you work for ITS? Are you a tutor or do you work in the math department or another relevant department? Tell me!
- Relevant off-campus jobs. Tell me!
- Other awesome things you've done.
The more of these I've been a part of, the better. But, I can talk to some extent about things I didn't have direction interaction with too.
"What should I do after I remind you of all of that?"
Make sure I don't forget! Pester me. Come by my office. Reply to your email to check in on me. Usually places will send me an email where I can upload the letter, so you can ask me whether that email came through. All okay. The sooner I get it uploaded, the better.
List as a Reference
This usually involves me talking to someone on the phone about you.
"I listed you as a reference for a job, is that okay?"
Oh my gosh, no. You should always ask first. It's very awkward when someone calls me and I'm confused about what's going on.
"Can I use you as a reference?"
The answer is almost always "Yes" unless you bombed one of my courses. Come by and ask me (or send me an email).
"How much advance warning should I give you?"
None is really necessary. So long as I'm expecting them to call, we're all good.
"How should I arrange it?"
The best situation is when you give them my email address so they can get in touch to schedule a time. Most employers, however, just want my phone number. I'll give you my cell number to pass on to them (unless they email me directly). Please don't give them my office phone. I don't check my messages on that, so it could be a dead end.
"What else should I do?"
Remind me about awesome things you did! A short list is fine. Senior projects, how you did in 4140 or other relevant courses. Which courses did you take with me? Talk about how you worked in groups with people. If you've graduated, what have you been doing since. Tell me about the job so I can talk about related things you did. All these are good things.
LinkedIn Skill Endorsements
"Would you mind endorsing me for the skills I listed on LinkedIn?"
I don't mind at all! Send me an connection request (if we're not yet connected) and I'll go through your skills and endorse anything I should. (You have to pick the skills ahead of time.) If I miss something you think we covered in a course, let me know! If you think I should endorse you for any other reason, tell me.
Common endorsements: (none of these are hard requirements)
- C+ or better in Intro Programming: Programming, Python
- C+ or better in Data Structures: Data Structures, Java
- Worked in teams often: Teamwork, Pair Programming
- Passed Theory of Computation: LaTeX
- Passed Software Engineering: Software Engineering, Teamwork
- B- or better: Object-Oriented Design (Patterns)
If you find more of these I should add, please let me know!
If later on you pass another course and want an endorsement relevant to that, just ask.