Frustrated by the many students who make the same missteps my colleague Professor Rachel Spooner penned a terrific short memo about seeking written letters of recommendation. She gave me permission to use it; I’ve excerpted the portions that resonate most with me (which is 90% of it).
For several years I have been spending a significant percentage of my time writing letters of recommendation for my students, current and former. I am happy to do so; my students work hard and I am happy to acknowledge their strengths, and I realize I wouldn’t be where I am without several busy people taking time to write letters for me, so I feel I obligated to do the same. Because I take the time to know my students, in most cases it is easy for me to write a letter expressing a personal view of the student. Occasionally, though, the circumstances present a real challenge. I do the best I can, but the best letters are those that reflect anecdotes and personal details that don’t come through on a transcript. The following is a list of my suggestions on how to get good, personal, and detailed letters of recommendation written for you, whether it is by me or another professor or professional contact.
- Let me get to know you. Simply showing up in class, doing well on exams, and writing good papers is not enough. Often I have “A” students that I barely know. All I can write is about is their performance on tests and papers, which is already conveyed to the Admissions Office/Employer in their transcripts. This is even worse if the student does not get an A. It is easy to let a professor get to know you: talk to see them in office hours, or ask them to meet over lunch or coffee. Some of my best letters have been written about a meaningful conversation I had with a student in office hours that had nothing to do with our course. You do not need an important question or topic to come see me.
- Class participation is only the first step. One way I can start to get to know you is through strong class participation. It is not the only way, and it is not enough, but it is a start.
- You don’t need an “A” to get a good letter. Some of my favorite students received average grades in my course. But because I got to know them outside of class, I could appreciate all their strengths, and write meaningful letters. I include this point so you don’t think all we care about is grades, and to reinforce how important it is to get to know your recommender.
- Provide ample notice. Writing letters isn’t our only job.
- Keep in touch. Even if I knew you well when you were in my class, if you come to me years later, and I haven’t spoken to you since, it will be challenging to remember the type of personal details that make a good letter. Stop by office hours, meet me for coffee, send an email once in a while.
- Let me know the results. It is frustrating to write letters of recommendation and never hear from them again. I want to know where you got in, and what your plans are. If I didn’t care, I wouldn’t write the letter. A simple email, or postcard from your study abroad program would suffice.