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Will Styler

Associate Teaching Professor of Linguistics at UC San Diego

Director of UCSD's Computational Social Science Program

Will’s Letter of Recommendation Guide

Lots of students ask about letters of recommendation, and so I figured I’d put all the information needed in one place. Grad Students: Not all of these things will apply to you (particularly the ‘Should I ask’ and ‘Classes taken’ bits), but the basic requirements stay the same.

Should I ask Will for a Letter of Recommendation?

Between teaching and my administrative work, I’m extremely limited in time to write letters, and I end up getting a lot of requests, teaching mostly undergrad classes. As such, I will only agree to write for somebody if I feel like I can give a strong, specific, and meaningfully positive recommendation which is likely to help your application. As a result, I’m not able to write for everybody who asks, and whether or not I’m willing to write for you depends on the answer to a number of big questions:

  1. Have we interacted in enough depth for me to be able to give details?
    • I generally write for students I’ve had extensive interaction with, students who’ve worked with me one-on-one (e.g. for an Honors Thesis, 199, IAship, RAship, or other departmental involvement), or folks I’ve come to know well over the course of many classes and office hour visits. If I’ve only had you for a single larger class, or had you for a few classes but without strong interaction (e.g. ongoing conversations in office hours), it’s very difficult to write a strong letter which graduate programs will value and which will actually help your case, so I’m pretty unlikely to be a good choice to write for you, and I’m likely to decline.
  2. Can I recommend you strongly based on your academic performance?
    • It’s much easier to recommend students earning A’s in my classes and submitting awesome work. Although it doesn’t matter as much for non-academic letters, and extenuating circumstances can definitely be brought up, it’s much harder to write a strong letter when your grades in my classes don’t appear to match your effort or my praise.
  3. Am I the right letter writer for the program you’re applying for?
    • You’ll want to carefully consider whether a recommendation from a Linguistics professor carries weight. If you’re applying for Linguistics or Cognitive Science, Audiology, or Speech Pathology grad school, absolutely, I’m a fine choice. But outside of related fields, it’s a good idea to speak with somebody in your field to get a sense whether letters from outside-of-your-field faculty are appreciated, valued, and desired, or whether it’d be wiser to ask another professor whose work is more closely related to your field, even if they don’t know you as well.
  4. Are you giving me enough time to do a good job?
    • Deadlines have a way of creeping up, I know, but barring exceptional circumstances, I’ll want your materials in hand around a month before the first letter is due (although if I’ve written for you before for a similar program, this can be accelerated).
  5. Have you carefully thought through your application plans?
    • For grad school applications, it’s a good idea to meet with a few different faculty members (or our SLP advisor, if that’s your route),, as well as maybe a PhD student or two, as well as man to talk about graduate school and the application process well before you even start thinking about asking for letters. This helps you both to make sure you’re being realistic in your expectations, and to make sure you’re choosing programs that will be a great fit.
  6. Have you sufficiently narrowed down your application plans?
    • You’ll likely want to narrow your plans down to 3-4 graduate schools which you actually plan to apply to as well as customize your application materials for, according to the advisors and strengths of each program. Don’t plan to carpet-bomb ten different schools with identical applications for Linguistics, as that’s a poor use of everybody’s time.
    • If you don’t feel passionate enough about a school to bother revising your materials specifically to fit the strengths of the program, it’s probably not someplace you’d be passionate about going, and it’s probably an application you should skip!
  7. Are you planning to follow-up with me and let me know how things went?
    • Although it’s not technically required, it’s an important part of the social contract that you let the folks who write for you know the outcome. If you got in or got the job, that’s amazing, let me know who accepted you and what your choice was. If you didn’t, let me know that too, both so we can strategize about your future plans, and so I get more data about how applications are received by these various schools.

Of course, you’re always welcome to ask, particularly if you think you meet these criteria or if you think there’s some other extenuating circumstance that makes me still make sense. After all, the worst thing I can say is ‘Sorry, I’m not a great choice’. But if you’d like to ask…

How to ask for a letter of recommendation

If you think I’d be a great choice to write for you, given the above criteria, please send me an email containing…

You’re also welcome to come to my general office hours (see my homepage) and chat with me then about your application.

Once I get that information, I’ll take a look and let you know what I think. If I’m willing to write the letter, I’ll need a bit more information!

Information I’ll need to write for you

In order to do my job well and give you the most effective recommendation(s), there’s some information I’m going to need from you. Knowing the below is useful for me, and frankly, being able to clearly answer these questions will help you in planning your applications as well, so it’s a win-win situation!

You’ll need to send the answers to the below questions, for each of the programs you’re applying to, at least a month before the first letters are due! I’ll always do my best to advocate for you, but the simple fact is that my best will be better with more time to prepare!

UCSD Letter of Recommendation Release Form

For some reason, you’re now being asked to complete and email me the following UCSD Letter of Recommendation Release Form. Make sure to email this form to me along with your other documents.

General information about you as a human

To start, I’ll need details about you as a person. These are things like…

  1. What your long term goal is, and how this fits in
    • Something like “I’m hoping to get my Ph.D and then become a professional squirrel psychologist” or, more plausibly, “I’m applying to law school to do contract law work”
    • If this is addressed in your personal statement, as it should be, you can skip this
  2. What classes you’ve taken with me, your final grade in the course, and what year (e.g. “LIGN 101, Fall 2018, I got an A!”)
    • This just makes sure I don’t forget that I also had you for that one class three years ago
    • If the course was project or paper based, send a PDF copy of your paper along too
  3. Any accomplishments or other exceptional things that you’re trying to emphasize in your application overall
    • This could be something like the breadth of your background in Linguistics, or your fluency in 12 languages, or the fact that you once beat Noam Chomsky in a poker game in Atlantic City.
  4. What languages you’re familiar with, and your (approximate) level of fluency
    • This can be human languages and programming languages, and feel free to use fluency categories that are a bit wishy-washy (e.g. ‘First-language’, ‘fluent’, ‘familiar’, ‘notions’)
    • This is less relevant for, e.g., an application to law school, but never hurts to mention!
  5. What name and pronouns you’d like me to use for you
    • If the name I know you under is different than the name you’re applying under, please let me know which name to use. If you’re applying under your legal name, but would prefer them to know you differently, I can do something like “Emiliano (who I know as ‘MJ’)” or I can just use your preferred name.
    • I’m happy to write for you using whatever pronouns and name you’d prefer, without question or judgment

Also make sure to include:

Please include all application materials as PDF or Plaintext or Google Docs, rather than Word Documents

Program-Specific Information

For each school or program individually, ordered by due-date, I’ll want to know the answers to the following questions:

  1. Where you’re applying
    • This should be in the form of “The Department of Linguistics at UC San Diego in San Diego, California, USA”
  2. What you’re applying for
    • Something like “I’m applying to the Ph.D Program in Linguistics” or “I’m applying to their school of public health”.
  3. Why you’re applying to that specific program
    • If you’re doing things right, there’s a reason you’re applying to each specific program. Tell me what it is.
    • Something like “At UC San Diego, I’m hoping to work in their Phonetics lab, working on the interface of computational linguistics and speech with Will Styler. It’s a great choice because they also have the CSS Ph.D specialization, which fits my interests too.”
    • If you’re applying for a transfer, tell me what your major would be and why that school’s a good choice
  4. Any particular emphases for that specific letter
    • Something like “I’m really hoping to work with Dr. Styler, because he’s a giant nerd. Also I think I’d fit in really well there because [relevant facts about yourself]”
    • This is also where you’d tell me that, for instance, “for this particular program I’m really pitching myself as a cognitive scientist”, or “this job is for a computational linguist, so please emphasize my computational experience”
  5. Where the recommendation is submitted
    • Either a web address, mailing address, or if there’s an application system (like Interfolio), tell me that.
  6. If applicable, give me the URL or text of the job ad
    • … and please make sure to promptly designate me as a letter writer in their system, so the system will let me submit whenever I’m ready.
  7. Tell me when the recommendation is due
    • All I need is something like “February 31st, 2020”
    • If you need multiple letters, give me an ordered list with the first due date first

Also be sure to include:

Should you waive your right to read the letter?

At some point during your application, you’ll be asked to choose whether you “waive your right to read the letter of recommendation” or something similar. You should know that your application will be perceived as substantially weaker if you don’t waive your right to read your letters. Although that may sound unfair, think of it from a Gricean perspective: almost every letter we get is ‘waived’, so when you specifically demand to read any letters written, admissions committees may infer…

So, even if they’re completely honest in their praise, your ‘unwaived’ letters will carry much less weight for admissions committees, and your choice not to waive may itself seem like a red flag. It’s not fatal to an application, but absolutely diminishes the value of even the strongest letters.

I understand that it can be hard to trust people, even the folks who you specifically asked to write for you, but remember that generally, faculty don’t have the inclination (or free time) to write negative letters, and if we can’t say strongly positive things about you, we’ll just decline to write. Also, despite the fact that almost all students waive their right to read, directly negative or damaging letters are vanishingly rare, and would generally reflect as poorly on the writer as on the student.

So, you have the right to read your letters if you’d like, and I’ll still write honestly whether you’ve waived or not, but it is in your best interest to waive your right to read your letters.

Information about me for applications

Applications will often ask for information about me. Please fill out as much of it as you can:

Name: Dr. Will Styler

Email: wstyler@ucsd.edu

Title: Associate Teaching Professor

Institution: UC San Diego Dept. of Linguistics


9500 Gilman Drive MC0108

La Jolla CA 92093-0108

United States

Phone: Email is the better way to reach me, and if a phone number isn’t required, don’t give one. If they absolutely require a phone number (e.g. they will be phoning references), please email me for my cell phone number (which I’ll actually answer). If it’s just a form that hasn’t been updated since email was a thing and you need a number to include, you can use my office number (858) 822-3206 which I don’t answer, but with a note to please use email if possible.