Writing a Reference Letter

When evaluating grad school applicants or internship applicants, we always request reference letters. Considering the high variability in the letters we receive, here are some thoughts that clarify what exactly we’re looking for in a reference letter:

  • Some background on how and when the referee got to know the candidate, how, when, and how long they collaborated, etc.
  • The referee’s thoughts on the quality of the candidate’s work.
  • The referee’s assessment of the candidate’s research potential, ability to learn new things, come up with ideas, etc. 
  • Any particular professional and/or personal aspects that stand out in the candidate.
  • Any professional and/or personal flaws that the candidate still needs to improve on (we all know nobody is perfect…).
  • A comparison of the candidate to some baseline that is known to both the referee and us (such as “top 10% of MS students graduating from Stanford CS”, or “better than Bob, who interned in your lab last summer, but below Alice, who interned there two years ago”). In the absence of such a baseline, please compare/rank the candidate relative to the set of all students you have worked with/advised/etc. in your career.

The more concrete the letter, the better. For example, illustrating the candidate’s abilities with specific accomplishments in specific projects makes the letter more powerful.

Thank you for taking the time to help us evaluate the candidate in depth!