Prof. James F. O’Brien

Frequently Asked Questions


Along with Frequently Given Answers

Questions of Interest to Current and Past Undergraduate Students

  1. 1.Would you write me a letter of recommendation for a job, scholarship, or graduate school?

  2. If you have been a student in one of my classes or I have supervised your research, then yes I would be quite happy to write you a letter of recommendation for an internship, job, or graduate school application.  I am quite proud of the excellent students we have in our program and I enjoy the opportunity to help them advance their careers. 

  3. Keep in mind that I can only write about my direct experiences with you.  If we interacted on a regular basis then I should have plenty of material to work with.  However if our only interaction was that you sat quietly in the back of a class I taught, then there would be very little for me to say in the letter.  It’s also harder to write an effective letter if the class you took from me was more than four years ago and we have not interacted since.

  4. I suggest that before you decide to ask me (or anyone else) for a recommendation letter that you first think about what I would be able to say about you.  A letter that only says “this student took my class and got a B+” is not very useful because it just repeats what’s already in your transcript.  Things that might help distinguish you are: if you actively participated in class, if you did something exceptional for your project, if you consistently earned one of the top scores on the exams, or if you came regularly to office hours and participated in discussion. 

  5. 2.What materials should I provide if I want a recommendation letter?

  6. I tend to have a pretty good memory for students, but with teaching up to 200 students a year I can’t remember everything about all of them.  So if you’re asking me for a letter you need to help me out by providing some items to refresh my memory:

  7. A copy of your UCB transcript - I can access these through BearFacts but it’s a hassle and I prefer that you provide a copy to me directly.

  8. A photo showing your face - I remember faces better than I do names so this will help remind me who you are, particularly if you took a class from me a couple of semesters ago.

  9. A reminder of what class(es) you took from me, what semester you took it in, and what project you did.

  10. A list of the things that you think I should mention in the letter.

  11. The last item is particularly important for two reasons.  The first is so that I don’t overlook something important.  You should remember all your own accomplishments very clearly, but I might need reminding.  I still need to actually recall something before I’ll discuss it in a letter, but having a reminder from you helps a lot. 

  12. The second reason is to make you think about what the letter will say.  If you can’t think of anything to put in your list of things to mention, then that means you should probably reconsider and try to find a better letter writer.  If your list is long and full then that’s a good sign that I’ll probably be able to write you a strong letter.

  13. All of this stuff should be sent by e-mail when you send me your request.

  14. You should also provide information on how I should deliver the letter.  Most companies/schools now use either a web form or e-mail to collect letters.  Make sure you provide clear instructions.  If they want an old fashioned letter printed on paper, then provide me with a pre-addressed, stamped envelope.  I do not give copies of letters directly to students except in very rare cases.

  15. You should allow at least 3-4 weeks between when you make your request and the deadline for when the letter is due.  It is also your responsibility to remind me as the deadline approaches.  The stereotype of the absent-minded professor is, at least in my case, rather accurate.

  16. 3.Do you have any advice for applying to grad school?

  17. Coming soon.

  18. 4.I’m an undergrad.  How do I get involved in your research?

  19. Coming soon.

  20. 5.I’m a grad student.  How do I get involved in your research?

  21. Coming soon.