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 this you have no hope of getting into a graduate program anyway. Not done a month before, you say? That's okay, send me a good draft (my letter will reflect the quality of your draft). Not yet started to write it? Well, you don't seem to really be that interested in applying, so why are you wasting my time?
- 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 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.
You would do well to send the resume, summary, and brag sheet ASAP, so I can start mulling over your letter. That way, when I get the rest, I can actually write it.
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. I upload letters myself, rather than asking my assistant. You may well want to initiate the application process early. Unfortunately, the moment you enter my email address, the system is going to fire off a message to me, creating a needless to-do item for me. I'd rather you wait until I tell you your letter is ready, and enter my address only then. If in doubt, especially if a deadline is looming, feel free to ask me.