Letters for students

Like most of my col­leagues, I wish most of my stu­dents well and am pre­pa­red to write let­ters for them. Here are some things to bear in mind.

My qualification

Ask me for a letter only if I know you. In al­most all cases this means: if I know you from at least one of my courses. If somebody else knows you bet­ter, why not ask that other per­son?


I need time to write such a let­ter. If you need the let­ter in less than four weeks, try some­body else, and six weeks is bet­ter than four. The four-week clock starts when the complete in­put is in my hands. (Should I be abroad, then so are my hands, so take into ac­count the time for the snail mail both ways.)


Bear in mind that praise and praise­wor­thi­ness are cor­re­lated. It is my duty to tell the truth in any such let­ter. This in­cludes aca­demic con­duct in the wider sense, not just grades and credit points and in­tel­lec­tual bril­liance. Here are ex­am­ples of things that you may not want the let­ter to re­port: fail­ing to reg­is­ter in time for courses that re­quire reg­is­ter­ing; reg­is­ter­ing but not turn­ing up; be­ing late; hand­ing in sloppy work; never vol­un­teer­ing for any­thing in a course; say­ing little or nothing in a course; hardly ever turn­ing up for talks given by guest speakers at our de­part­ment; fail­ing to say »thank you« for help re­ceived.

Two steps

First ask me, pref­era­bly in per­son rather than in writ­ing, whether I am will­ing to write the let­ter. Next, if I am and if you want me to do it, pro­vide me with the in­put.

Input I require

After I have agreed to write the let­ter, I re­quire quite a bit of ma­te­rial from you, all of it on pa­per (not elec­troni­cally) and all of it in one go (not in in­stal­ments).

  • Docu­ment your life and stud­ies:
    En­close your CV and pho­to­cop­ies of every cer­tifi­cate you ob­tained af­ter leav­ing school. If you have stud­ied in Ger­many, this should typi­cally in­clude the »Scheine« you ob­tained, and, if ap­pli­ca­ble, any uni­ver­sity de­gree. You have probably al­ready writ­ten some­thing dur­ing your time at the uni­ver­sity: a term pa­per or even a B.A. the­sis or M.A. the­sis. Please en­close two such writ­ings, in­clud­ing the B.A. the­sis if it ex­ists and the M.A. the­sis if it ex­ists.
  • Docu­ment what you are ap­ply­ing for and why and how:
    It helps if I know a lot about whatever it is that you are ap­ply­ing for. Please in­clude what you can. Fur­ther­more, in­clude your ap­pli­ca­tion it­self – most im­por­tantly, the items in which you ex­plain what you plan to do and why and how.
  • Docu­ment our con­tact:
    In­clude a page say­ing when we met and what con­tact we have had since. In par­ticu­lar, list the courses of mine you at­tended and the things you did in them; mention, for ex­am­ple, the topic of your class room pres­en­ta­tion or term pa­per. Not hand-writ­ten, please.