Ahhh...it's grad/med/dental/etc school application season. For the first time ever I'm sitting down to write multiple letters of recommendation for former students and researchers in my lab. I've now seen the process from all sides: as a prospective undergraduate researcher, as a tenure track PI asked to write letters, and as a grad school admissions committee member. I remember being horribly blindsided by the process as an undergrad (they require 3 letters from DIFFERENT people?) and hope to offer a couple of words of advice for those prospective students.
1. Email me way before the deadline to ask about writing a letter. There is nothing worse than finding out that I have to pop out a letter of recommendation in the next couple of days. My life as a PI is stressful enough that I only survive by making lists of things to get done over the next couple of weeks. If you wait until the last minute, even if I think you have a great future as a post-grad, there is a significant chance I will decline because there aren't enough minutes in the day.
2. If you are a student in my class, don't wait until after the final to introduce yourself. I'm pretty good at remembering names and faces and know who participates in class and who doesn't. If you are ultimately thinking about grad school it's a good idea to participate in discussions in my class and answer questions. Not only does this give me ammo to put in the letter, but it makes a good first impression (which never hurts).
3. Get a good grade in my class. I usually only write letters for students that get A's in my class. I will make exceptions if you are an active participant (see #2) or if you've made a good hearted effort to improve your grade as the semester went on. This doesn't just mean doing better on tests, but it means coming to office hours and showing an interest in the material. I can't say this enough, enthusiasm is one of the greatest assets for prospective students.
4. Help me out. A letter of recommendation is just that...I am writing to back you in your pursuit of higher education. You can help by scheduling meetings to come and talk with me in person, give me a feel for what your interests/goals are. Let me know why you want to go to grad school. Tell me stories that illustrate why I should give you my seal of approval. A letter can be pretty dry if all I can write is that you got an A in my class. Seriously, help a brother out here, it will go a long way towards making your letter the best it can be.
5. Don't make me search for addresses to email the letter to or websites to log in to. Please, give me the links and I promise you that it will get done much faster and more smoothly.
6. Ask if there are spots for undergraduate researchers in my lab. There is nothing better in a letter of recommendation for grad school than positive comments about a student's laboratory skills and dedication. All grad school is is trying to figure out how to make experiments work, and you've got a good head start if you've already had this experience. Obviously, the earlier you do this the better.
7. Remember, I'm doing this to help you. There is nothing in my contract that requires me to write letters of recommendation. Seriously, this is a favor I'm doing for you.
Have to write letters? Check this out.
Any other thoughts? Feel free to contribute in the comments.