Recommendation Letter from Me
I assume by default that you're applying for a PhD program in computer science; if either of these is not true, please remind me of it (repeatedly, if necessary!).
To write a letter for you, I need a month. This is because (a) I have many demands on my time, and (b) I let these letters gestate for a long time, revising draft prose in my head. The longer I get, the better the letter. More to the point, if you give me less than a month (i.e., your earliest deadline is less than a month away), I will probably decline to write a letter for you.
What I Need
To write your letter, I need:
- An unofficial (internal) transcript. Don't spend money to get me a formal transcript; I trust you.
- A draft of your graduate school statement of purpose. Without a good one, you won't get into a graduate program. Not done a month before, you say? That's okay, send me a good draft (my letter will reflect the quality of your draft).
- A list of other professional activities. For instance, if you did a senior honors thesis with someone else, tell me a bit about what it was about. If you've had relevant summer jobs, mention them. Have you been working since graduation? Doing what? I don't need pages and pages of information; the level of detail you'd put in a resume should be just fine. Indeed, feel free to provide your resume for this purpose.
- A brief summary of what you've done with me. Include courses taken, extra reading credit earned, summer research positions completed, etc. Include dates and (in the case of courses) grades. (Yes, this has some redundancy relative to the transcript.)
- A brag sheet. This is a list of all the things you've done with me that would be worth reminding me of. This includes anything from homeworks you did especially well to projects you completed. You should be very generous to yourself here; I am always free to leave out something I don't think is noteworthy, but you should certainly assume I don't remember everything you did that is noteworthy. This is your chance to make sure your letter is not victimized by my poor memory.
What to Not Do
What you should not send: forms, envelopes, etc. After checking in with me (so I can provide a heads-up), send these directly to my assistant. Be just as respectful of my assistant's time: don't make them do things in the last minute. If you rush them, they may do a sloppy job or not do it on time at all, and they (not you) will have my sympathy and support. You had to give me at least a month's notice, so why not them, too?
Of course, these days applications are mostly electronic. What I do is send the letter to my assistant and have them do all the uploading. Therefore, you should use their email address, not mine (but my name, not theirs) on the site where you list your letter-writers. Please check in with the assistant on when they want you to list them, because the moment you do, most of these systems will generate letter requests. That means they'll suddenly be flooded with these requests, but can't dispatch them right away because my letter isn't yet ready—so they're stuck having to keep track of all these. You should take this precaution not only to be considerate to them, but also to help yourself: if they miss one of those mails, my letter won't be submitted, and you will probably be rejected in silent failure mode.