Thomas Poon
of Chemistry





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Letters of Rec.

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Procedure for Obtaining a Letter of Rec. from Dr. Poon

Writing a letter of recommendation is one of the most important things a professor will ever do for his student. Having been on several hiring and admissions committees, I have seen firsthand the significance of a good, bad, or even neutral letter of rec. In the period from 1995 - 2006, I have written letters for over 300 people. Each letter is different and I start from scratch with each one. Most letters take me at least 1 hour to write, address, print out, and send.

I created this web page because I've come to realize that few students really understand the importance of the recommendation letter, what goes into writing one, and what strategies to use when asking for one. Therefore, any student who would like me to write him or her a letter of recommendation must read through and follow the instructions herein (no exceptions). We both have much to gain through this process. I get to spend more time writing your letter (rather than worrying about formating, finding the target addresses for the letter, etc), and you achieve the peace of mind that my letter will represent you well and in the very best way possible. Let's begin....


STEP 1. Ask yourself the following questions:

1) How long has Dr. Poon known me?

2) How well does Dr. Poon know me?

a) Can he comment favorably on my academic ability? [Positive letters for A or B students are usually easy for me to write. This is much less so for C students unless I know you well enough to comment on the next two areas of your life.]

b) Can he comment favorably on my lab skills?

c) Can he comment favorably on my personality, interests, or activities? [It is a lot easier for me to write a letter for you if we've chatted outside of class. I never write letters from a resume, even though I ask for one from all of my students requesting a letter. ]

3) Are there other faculty who know me better or who are more familiar with my abilities? If the answer is "yes," you should tab these people first before utilizing me to satisfy your letter quota or allocation.

4) Ask me in person whether I am willing or have the time to write a letter of rec. for you. [I normally require two weeks notice to write letters.]

Summary: Don't just ask anyone for a letter of recommendation. Assess whether that person can comment favorably about you in as many areas of your life as possible. Then, have the guts to ask in person (not by email) whether he/she can write a letter of rec. for you. Also, don't just ask for "a letter of rec.," ask for "a favorable letter of rec." Your career and future depend on all your letters being positive, if not glowing.

STEP 2. Gather and give me the following (all at once if possible):

1) A resume (make sure it has your current GPA)

2) An up to date copy of your transcript

3) A copy of the essay or personal statement that you are sending to the same place I am sending the letter to (as an added bonus, I will look over your essay for you) OR fill out the following form (click to download and print out the form).

4) Any forms that I need to fill out with your info AND my contact info already filled in (use the following info and type or print neatly):

Name: Thomas Poon
Title: Professor of Chemistry
Department: W.M. Keck Science Department
Institution: If you are from PZ, CMC, or SCR, then list your college. If you are from anywhere else, use "Claremont McKenna, Pitzer and Scripps Colleges"
925 N. Mills Av
Claremont, CA 91711
Tel: 909-621-8736
FAX: 909-621-8588

5) E-mail me a MS Word file with the people and addresses of the places you wish me to send the letters to. [so I can cut and paste these addresses onto the envelopes and my letters]

6) DO NOT supply any envelopes or stamps (it looks much better if I use departmental stationary, and the department will pay for postage)

Summary: You should make it as easy as possible for your recommenders to write their letters for you. We all have teaching, research, and committee duties, along with family and personal lives outside of school. Letter writing is something we do in our own spare time, so please make it as easy on us as possible.

STEP 3. Follow up:

1) Send your letter writer (me) an e-mail one week before the letter is due asking whether the letter has been sent yet (I try to remember to inform students when I've sent their letter). You could write (for example):

Dear Dr. Poon,
I was wondering if you had a chance to send off the letter(s) of recommendation for such-and-such? If not, this is just a friendly reminder that it(they) is(are) due in one week. Thanks.

2) Contact the school or company that is to receive your application and ask whether your application is complete. They will tell you whether anything is missing, including your letter of rec.

Summary: We professors are inherently forgetful people! Also, things get lost in the mail from time to time. Don't be too chicken to ask your recommender or some gruff person at the place receiving your letter about its status. Your timidness could result in your dream job or dream school passing you by, all because of an incomplete application.

STEP 4. Step 1 revisited:

This isn't really a "step" per se, but rather some advice. You chose to attend a small liberal arts college so that you could take advantage of the opportunities for student-faculty interactions (at least that's what many prospective students tell me). Well, guess what? That's also one reason most of your professors decided to work here! Yet, every year, half the students in my classes never come to office hours, never ask questions, and never show me who they really are. It would be okay if they are just being selective and are doing these things with other professors, but when, out of the blue, they come by and ask me for a letter of rec., it makes me sad. I'm sad for the student because they feel that I am one of their best chances to help them get a job, internship, or med/grad school acceptance. And inevitably, I'll write them a positive letter of rec. But it won't have the substance that most hiring or acceptance committees are looking for. Bottom line is, get to know your professors. We want to know you as a person, and we'll be able to write much better letters for you if we do. As an example of how important this is for you, here are links to three letters I've written in the past. Read them and try to put yourself in the shoes of someone on the selections committee, someone who reads hundreds of letters each year. Remember, these folks already know your GPA and grade in the class. They are looking for things in these letters that your resume or transcripts don't reveal. Do you see the differences among the letters?

Letter 1: Shy, "B-/C+" student; my only contact with her was in lab.

Letter 2: Outgoing student; got only a "B-" in my class; got to know me fairly well, and I admired her perseverence and talents outside of organic chemistry.

Letter 3: Outgoing student; earned an "A" in my class; got to know me fairly well.

Last Updated 5/23/16

© 2007 Thomas Poon

The opinions expressed here are those of Thomas Poon, and do not represent official policies of Claremont McKenna, Pitzer, or Scripps Colleges.