Expert Advice on Getting a Letter of Recommendation

Whether requested for applications for undergraduate admission, scholarship, graduate school, or the workplace, letters of recommendation are one of the most important elements of success. It’s a travesty that so many students and job hunters alike are ill-prepared for such a monumental task; most individuals think very little about seeking letters of recommendation until confronted by an application with a specific request.

The time to think about recommendations is when you first begin taking college classes. Actually, it would be fantastic if students began thinking about them in high school, but that’s a bit much to ask of most of the adolescent population. For undergraduate admissions, letters of recommendation from volunteer organizations, church functions, and extra-curricular activities, along with teachers from any given class, are acceptable. But when looking for career or graduate school options, not just any recommendation will suffice.

writing a letter of recommendation

Competition

Think about how many students there are and how many job applicants continue to struggle. This entire unfathomable population seeks recommendations, and generally, everyone needs at least two. Now narrow this thought down to a typical college campus. Every student is going to require recommendations for something at some point.

  • How many more students exist than professors?
  • How much personalized attention can a professor be expected to devote to every student that ever enrolled in one of his or her classes? Tom, Harry, Dick and Jane all blur together.

I have received recommendation requests from students that I can’t remember by face, voice, writing, or name. While I know it’s possible to verify, through the registrar or my own grading records, any given student’s enrollment in one of my previously taught classes, how can I recommend someone that I can’t remember? Even if the student was awarded an A or a B, all that means is, comparatively speaking, they went slightly above and beyond the minimum average assignment requirements for the class. If I did choose to recommend every student that ever achieved an A or B in one of my classes, it would minimize the worth of my recommendations at all.

While this is not of particular relevance to me, as a student’s recommendation, since I’m no longer employed by academia and I was never a tenure-track instructor to begin with, it is a very real issue for a tenured or tenure-track professor. Faculty members making a career out of academia seek reputation establishment within both the university community and nationally within his or her chosen field. As the individual publishes, presents, and otherwise participates in academia, his or her name spreads – at least this is the hope. Connections are forged with professors at other schools across the country. So if a professor writes a letter of recommendation for a student, especially in cases of recommending entrance into graduate school, he or she is likely to receive some personal correspondence from the department. The professor is no longer just a random name and over-glorified title – his or her personal academic reputation is put on the line when recommending a student. And if a student fails to live up to that recommendation, the professor’s next recommendation becomes suspect.

This is why any professor or instructor worthy of authoring a recommendation letter at all isn’t going to write one simply because you made a good grade in one class, or even in multiple classes. You have to stand out somehow as an individual, and to do so, you have to learn quite a bit about each professor on a more personal level.

How to Get an Academic Recommendation in One Semester

Choose Wisely

During your first week of classes, evaluate all of your professors.

  • Which subjects do you find the most interesting?
  • Are any of them part of your proposed major or minor (if you’ve gotten that far)?

If you are taking classes that are a part of your major or minor, focus on these. If you haven’t determined your exact course of study, choose one or two professors that you find the most interesting, but do make an attempt to choose tenured or tenure-track professors. An “instructor” (like me!) is not going to have the recommendation weight as someone with tenure. Look for “associate” professors rather than “assistant” professors.

Find Publications

Search for the chosen professor(s) on Amazon. The way to tenure in academia is publication, and many professors will have at least one book published and available on Amazon. If not, conduct an author search in your university library’s national article database. You are almost guaranteed to find something. If it’s an article or articles, print and read thoroughly. Yes, that’s right, READ. Not skim. If it’s a book or books, read at least the introduction and some academic book reviews. Don’t rely on Amazon or Google reviews – search for academic reviews at the library.

Seek Out and Stand Out

Each professor gives out a syllabus, usually with his or her office hours. If the professor doesn’t hold specific office hours, he or she will provide contact information for appointments. Make an appointment or visit during office hours by sometime in the second week of the semester. Yes, you’re reading correctly – the second week. The first exam of a semester usually isn’t until the third or fourth week, in any given class, and that’s when the herds of indistinguishable students show up. You want to be different, to stand out from the crowd. You must indicate an interest early, and your interest must at least appear to go beyond mere GPA.

Discussion

When you do meet with the professor, do NOT visit with vague questions about making a good grade or achieving success in the class. These ubiquitous generalizations accomplish nothing. Bring up a publication, saying, for example, “After you talked about the duckbilled platypus’s unique role in evolutionary biology in class on Tuesday, I became curious about what studies you might have done yourself. I ran across your article on the role of beavers in the Canadian ecosystem, and I have some questions about it.” Then – and this is really important – have some REAL questions, ones that are well thought out. By all means, take notes with you to the appointment, and have your questions written down. Remember, your goal is to get the professor to talk about his or her studies – this is not a test, and you are not there to prove you’ve read the material. You can start with a question as simple as, “What prompted your interest in this subject?” Be prepared for specific follow-up questions, though, such as, “Have you studied beavers in other environments to see if this is applicable elsewhere?”

Continuity

You can’t do this once in a semester and expect the professor to recommend you. But if you do it three or four times – stopping by once every two to three weeks – you’ll seal the deal. You don’t have to do quite as much homework after the first time, either. If the professor recommends something for additional reading, pick up a copy of whatever it is from the library, and read it, with the intention of going into the professor’s office and discussing it. If not, after that first meeting, you can bring up key points brought up in class, and ask very specific, insightful questions. Brainstorm ahead of time, and, again, feel free to write the questions down. Avoid going to see the professor immediately before and after exams – because that’s when everyone else will visit. You want to stand out as an individual.

Jessica Saviano is a college “instructor” who has been working in the field since 2006.