The head of our department is writing a letter of recommendation for me for MD-PhD (MSTP) programs. I have two graduate level classes with him. He is very busy and writes letters regularly for students. I want to make sure that he does not end up using a canned letter.

I will be sending him my C.V., Cover Letter, and letter of intention. What else should I provided? He knows me in a classroom setting--I have not done research in his lab.

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    remind him of your grades, class projects and the result of the project. Professors usually forgot students names and performance (specially in the undergraduate level). – seteropere Dec 19 '12 at 21:10
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    He knows me in a classroom setting — Unfortunately, that almost guarantees that he will write a canned "did well in class" letter. – JeffE Dec 19 '12 at 21:12
  • @JeffE That's not necessarily true. I got a wonderful recommendation letter (basically sticking to David's advice) from a professor with whom I never did any research/projects together. It's all about context: I did some class projects for his classes which he only evaluated, and since he was one of the rare professors open to suggestions about his first-time subjects (he had a new subject and a subject with his completely new programme) we had a few informal after- or between-class talks about the student perception of his classes which he seemed to appreciate. – penelope Dec 22 '12 at 12:06
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    ...we had a few informal after- or between-class talks... — So the professor knew you in more than a classroom setting, which meant he could actually say something substantial. My point stands: A professor who knows you only in a classroom setting can only write about your performance in the classroom. – JeffE Dec 22 '12 at 23:23

You won't find a better or more complete answer to this question than the one given here, by Professor David E. Keyes. Here is the key paragraph:

Likely reference writers (for instance, well-known professors of core courses) are sought out by many well-qualified candidates. To ensure that such a writer is well primed to execute your reference efficiently, you should create a self-contained packet containing all the information the author will need to dispatch the reference in one sitting: (1) contact information for the recipient of the letter, (2) a description of the position and application closing date, (3) your own application essays and cover letter, (4) a resume, (5) relevant transcripts and scores, and (6) an explanation of the niche of the writer! It is very useful, as a reference writer, to receive a reminder along the following lines: "Professor Keyes, your letter will be the one that comments most authoritatively about my analytical ability, my promptness in completing projects, and my reasons for wanting to pursue X next fall. Remember that you gave me an A– in partial differential equations two years ago and it was your suggestion that led to my summer at Los Alamos with Y." You should provide this packet in both hard and soft copy. Writers of lots of references maintain files that may be hard or soft, or both, and you should make it easy for those writers to locate your files quickly for subsequent updating and future requests.

Some faculty write many dozens of letters of reference during peak months, and they may even ask candidates for sample text to be incorporated into letters, to ensure that they capture their niches. You should not be flustered at such a request, and should not be modest in complying. You should be aware, though, that your words will not pass directly into the delivered product; they will be used simply to get the author's juices flowing following the formulaic paragraphs of the letter.

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When I agree to write a letter of recommendation for a student, I ask him/her for the information listed here, including most of what David mentioned, as well as a self-assessment of the student's strengths and weaknesses and a list of long-term career goals.

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Send him information about the program and department you are applying to. Also ask him/her if they might know someone in the department you are applying to. It might be beneficial to name that contact person in the cover letter. Finally provide a deadline.

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Give your letter-writer a packet containing:

  • A copy of your transcript (showing what courses you've taken and the grades you've gotten).

  • A copy of your personal statement or other essays that go with your applications.

  • A brag sheet, with reminders of things your letter writer might want to mention. This might include significant acomplishments. It should also include reminders of interactions you've had with the professor (e.g., you may remember that you suggested I study with wibbly wobbets do or don't wangle their wuckets; see my research paper, where I found that they do, but only on Tuesdays; or, you may remember that I solved two of the optional bonus problems in your class).

  • A list of places where you are applying, and the deadline for each. Highlight the first deadline.

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