These are the general criteria I have for writing letters for undergraduate students, particularly for graduate school. I assume most other professors have similar standards, so I’m listing my criteria here so that students can plan appropriately. If students don’t meet these criteria, it’s very unlikely that I’ll write a letter of recommendation on their behalf.
1) A student must have taken at least two classes with me, and preferably more. If you only take one class with a professor, all they can write about is your performance in that one class. What’s more compelling to readers of your application is seeing consistency or trajectory — i.e. either that you are a solid, high achieving student across classes, or that you are maturing as a student and are improving in your achievements.
2) A student must write an original research paper in at least one of the classes taken with me. It’s fine to write about your performance on tests, quizzes and your general classroom behavior and achievements, but what’s even more important is the ability of a letter writer to speak to your ability to conduct original research and write a compelling, well argued research paper — since that’s what you’re going to have to do in graduate school.
3) I have to recognize your face and name. This might seem incidental, but if you’ve done 1 & 2, then it’s most likely the case that you’ll already meet this criteria. If, however, you’ve taken a number of classes with me, never spoken in class, met with me outside of class, or distinguished yourself in some way in my memory, something has gone wrong. If I know your name in class, I’ll probably remember it a few years later.
If you meet all those criteria, please don’t ask to come see me in my office just to ask me to write a letter of recommendation; an email will suffice. Please also take the time to read this guide on applying to graduate school, and plan on sending me your personal statement and the list of schools you’re considering. if I suggest other schools, take my suggestions seriously and at least look at the programs I mention.
A few other things to keep in mind as you prepare to ask people for letters of recommendation:
First, don’t ask graduate student teaching assistants for letters of recommendation. Their letters don’t carry the weight that faculty letters do, and, frankly, it’s not part of their job to recommend you.
Second: try and get letters from faculty who are in some way related to the kind of program you’re applying to. This can sometimes be difficult to manage, especially if you’re changing disciplines. But if a reader recognizes the name of a letter writer, that letter is going to prove much more effective in getting you into the program.
Finally, if you have weak or uncertain letters — i.e. you don’t meet the above requirements but are still getting letters from people — don’t waste your money on applying to Ph.D. programs, just target M.A. programs (which weak letters can probably get you into, as long as you have a solid GPA and personal statement).
If you’re thinking about graduate school and you don’t meet the above criteria for anyone you might ask for a letter from, the best option is to apply for post-baccalaureate enrollment at your alma mater and to take a few more classes with professors you previously worked with. This can give you the chance to work closely with professors, and to impress them of your readiness for graduate study.
Graduate school is a big commitment — time-wise, emotionally and monetarily — and preparing for it socially and academically will make a big difference in your ability to get into the programs you’re interested in.