Letters of Recommendation

Prof. Alberto Cerpa, University of California, Merced

Each year I write letters of recommendation for many students. I try my best to make these letters as informative as I can. This takes time and effort.

If you are a student who needs a letter from me, please follow the following steps. This will ensure that your letter gets sent on time with the minimal anxiety on your part. For me, it will mean that I can focus on the content of your letter, and not worry about whether I have the correct envelope/stamp/URL when the time comes to send it in.

Those who don't follow these instructions and approach me in a panic shortly before letters are due, should note that all frantic appeals at such a stage are futile. You are not ready for graduate school if you can't figure out how to get the application materials in on time.

  1. Step 1: Send me email asking me if I am willing to write a letter for you. This is best done one month in advance of the time you actually need the letter(s) sent out. If we haven't been in touch for a while (e.g. you took my class several semesters ago), please remind me who you are, and whether we interacted as part of a class or some other activity. Please don't send me a resume or other materials at this stage. Note that if our only contact has been because you took my class, I can only write you a letter if you got an A grade. Even though I will write it, for a good graduate program such a letter is essentially useless because it will simply reiterate what is already on your transcript. Ideally you should only ask for letters from people with whom you've worked on projects or research. If I tell you that I don't know you well enough to write you a letter, believe me! If you insist, then I will write a letter that states "I do not know this person well enough to write him a letter of recommendation." Your application is much stronger with two good letters than it would be with two good letters and a very weak letter.
  2. Step 2: If I feel I can recommend you, I will send you an email agreeing to your request. You need to send me by email the following information (in plain text or PDF, not MS Word or other file formats):

    1. Your resume
    2. Your statement of purpose, or some similar document
    3. A summary of key or memorable interactions that we have had. e.g.:
      • "I was the student in office hours who had the idea about changing the MAC protocol ..."
      • "You looked at my final project and said that I was the only one who ..."
      • "I usually sat on the right side of class and asked lots of questions."

  3. Step 3: At this point you need to tell me where the letters are going. This is done in the following two ways and needs to happen at least 15 days in advance of when you actually need the letter(s) sent out.

    1. If the letters are due online email me a list of addresses (email/URL) where the letters are going to go, accompanied by a set of due dates.
    2. If the letters are due by snail mail, please leave a stamped, addressed envelope for each letter in my office (see contact info in my web page). If a form is to accompany any of the letters, enclose it within the envelope. Fill out the obvious parts of the form (your name, my name, your address, my address etc.). Please also attach a hardcopy list of due dates for each letter.

  4. Step 4: Once you have given me the information package, please do not hound me to see if I have written the letter. One email around the time that the letters are "due" is appropriate, to make sure that I haven't lost the package or forgotten about you.

Regarding due dates: trust me when I tell you that I know when the UCM EECS letters are really due. You have your deadlines for your applications, and letters of reference have other real deadlines. I have never missed a hard deadline for a grad school letter of recommendation yet. The only thing that your hounding me may accomplish is to get me to write the letter in a hurry to get you off my back. Such letters may suffer as a result.