So you want a letter of recommendation...
I am happy to write the strongest letter I can, within the limits of ethics and honesty. If you write well, I shall say so, but I will not claim that you invented the Post-It Note. Here is what I need:
1. An updated resume, so that I know what you have done.
2. A copy of your personal statement, so that my letter squares with what you are saying about yourself. If you do not have a personal statement, please send me talking points, a list of items that you would like me to emphasize (e.g., writing ability, leadership experience).
3. The best paper(s) that you have written for me. I can make a better case for your research and writing skills if I can cite specific examples.
4. All the relevant forms, or at least the names and addresses of the people to whom I should send the letter.
a. Check to see whether the form includes a waiver of your right to inspect the recommendation. My own policy is to write the same letter regardless of whether the student waives access. But you should know that some readers may give the recommendation less weight if the student insists on access. Whatever you decide, check the appropriate box and sign. An unsigned form may cause a delay that interferes with your application.
b. Also check whether I should give you a sealed copy of the letter or send it directly to its destination. In the latter case, a stamped, self-addressed envelope is a nice touch.
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