References and Recommendation Letters

If you have taken a course with me (and you passed), I am happy to serve as a reference and/or to write you a recommendation letter. For those who are not familiar with the US usage of these terms:

  • A reference is when you provide someone else with my name, title and contact information (generally just my Harvard e-mail). They may or may not contact me. If they do, I will say nice things about you. Students will sometimes need a reference when renting an apartment or applying for a job. Even if you have not taken a class with me, I am happy to serve as a reference as long as I know you.

  • A recommendation — or, more commonly, recommendation letter — is when I write a letter about you to someone else and then send them the letter. This is most commonly needed when you apply to graduate school. Some internships/jobs want a recommendation letter but, mostly, they just want a reference. I can generally only write a recommendation letter for someone who has taken a class with me but come chat if you think a letter might still make sense.

You hereby have permission to use me as a reference. You do not need to to ask me first. Just, each time you use my name, send me an e-mail, reminding me who you are, and noting the organization/purpose of the reference. If they ever contact me (and, most times, they won’t), I will confirm that you were/are an excellent Harvard student of high moral character.

You may ask me for a recommendation letter, but that process requires much more work on your part.

  1. E-mail me to ask. I will probably ask you to come by during office hours and/or have a phone conversation. I reserve the right to try and talk you out of law or business school.
  2. Once we confirm that I am writing you a letter, send me a follow up e-mail with many, many specifics about what we have done together. What course(s) have you taken? When did you take it? What grade did you get? What class positions did you volunteer for? Did I ever highlight your work for the class? What did you do your final project on? And so on. The more details you give me, the better your letter will be. Do not rely on me to remember your work.
  3. Be as complete and straightforward as possible, even if you think your grade for the course was bad or your final project unimpressive. I will use my judgment to craft the letter to maximize your chances of getting the position.
  4. The most important part of this e-mail is your description of your final project. Write a full paragraph or two, with complete sentences and flowing prose. I won’t just copy/paste all your words, but the better your reporting, the better my letter will be. Do not count on me to remember anything.
  5. Also, in that same e-mail, include information about what you are applying for and any other background on you. Everything that I need is in this (second) e-mail.
  6. Provide clear guidance on how my letter should get to the recipient(s). Most times, this is just a URL. But, if they want hard copies, you need to give me already-addressed and stamped envelopes.
  7. Keep an eye on whether or not the organization has received my letter. If they haven’t done so by a week before the due date, send me a polite reminder. If we are one day away, send me a desperate e-mail.

And that is it! (But note that I will update this post over time.) I am always happy to help out my students, however I can.

David Kane
Preceptor in Statistical Methods and Mathematics
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