“Dr. H. Can I see you for a minute?” A student has approached me after class.
“Sure.” I’m always pleased when a student shows some interest.
“Well. I was wondering. Can you write me a recommendation?”
Now I’m not pleased. I’m just astonished. Yes, this student has achieved a decent grade. But she’s participated marginally and has never set herself apart from the group. It’s the first one-to-one contact I’ve had with her.
“I’m always glad to help out when I can, but surely there’s someone who knows you better than I do,” I reply, doing my best to stay polite.
“Well. You know me better than any other professor because you teach the smallest class I’ve got.”
If I know her the best, she’s in trouble. I barely know her at all. All I can say in a letter of recommendation is that she showed up most of the time and got a B+. That’s not very compelling. Actually, it is so lame it would probably do her more harm than good. When I tell her so, she gets mad. She gets pouty. She gets desperate.
“How am I going to get a job or into grad school unless you help me?” she whines.
I wish this were a unique dialogue. I wish I had made it up. I wish I were the only professor with this complaint. It isn’t. I didn’t. I’m not. Every semester, some of my colleagues and I go through similar conversations with at least a few students. Some accept the lukewarm recommendation we can in good conscience provide. Some huff out with a “Never mind” and a slam of the door. An occasional few ask politely what they can do about the situation and agree to meet a few times to try to do in a few weeks what should have been happening over months.
If you want great recommendations, it takes planning, extending yourself, and developing relationships. Networking doesn’t happen by itself. We professors want to be helpful. Part of our job, and often part of our personal mission, is to develop the next generation of professionals in our fields. But we can’t be expected to work harder at it than you do. Help us help you.
How To Get Great Recommendations
- Start early. Once you’ve declared your major, map out a strategy. Identify what classes you need and want. Think about whether an internship will be helpful and where it will fit in your remaining semesters. Plan for summer jobs and volunteer work that will advance you toward your goals. Building a good academic resume is your first step toward getting that good recommendation. It shows us that you have been serious about your field and gives us more to say than “she wrote a good term paper” or “he had insightful things to say in class.”
- Make a good impression. Treat class the way you would your job. Show up. Be on time. Come to class awake and prepared. As superficial as it may seem to you, being clean and dressed decently says that you respect others and you respect yourself. You don’t have to look dressed for the office, but please at least put on a clean shirt and comb your hair.
- Participate. Sit up front. Make eye contact. Be interested in what is going on. Make contributions to discussions and help draw other students into the conversation. Teachers can’t keep a lively conversation going by themselves and are grateful to have a little help.
- Participate meaningfully. Do the reading and think about it. With so many resources available on the Internet, there’s really little excuse for not doing a little personal research to add to whatever was assigned. Show that you’ve thought about why your professor wanted you to know the topic of the day. Make connections with things you’ve learned in other classes or experiences you’ve had. But please, don’t talk just for the sake of talking. Nobody likes that girl or that guy who seems to just like to hear themselves talk. You’ll get noticed all right but not in the way you want to be remembered. Ask good questions and make meaningful comments.
- Participate even in huge classes. Professors don’t like the anonymity of the classes with 250 students either. People who look like they care become people we care about. Sit in the front row. Show interest. Linger after class to ask a question or make a comment. Make an appointment to see your teacher a few times during the semester. Making a little effort now lays the foundation for developing the relationship when you get to take an upper-level class.
- Get to know at least two teachers well, and let them get to know you. Whenever possible, take two courses from a teacher. It makes a huge difference when we can get to know a student over time. Show up at office hours to talk about the class. If you and your professor click, see about working in her or his lab, or helping with fieldwork or research, or doing an independent study or internship. Teachers who see you applying your classwork are the people who can write recommendations that speak to your talents, your motivation, and your developing skills.
- Be appreciative. It’s a professor’s job to do his or her very best to teach. In most schools, it’s also part of the job to make contributions to the professor’s academic field through study and research. It’s not necessarily part of the job to write letters of recommendations to the 12 different graduate schools you are applying to or to fill out online references for your five job prospects. When a professor agrees to do that for you it’s because he or she believes in you and wants to help. A little appreciation matters a lot. Keeping in touch makes it more likely we’ll do it again if you need us to.
Among some students, it has somehow become bad form to cultivate relationships with teachers. They worry they’ll be seen as a “suckup” by the teacher or as a “kissup” by their friends. Please. Those attitudes belong back in middle school. Doing college well is so much more than checking off the requirements, getting passing grades, and getting by. Doing college well means finding the people, both professors and classmates, who share your excitement and interest in what will become your life work. Students who demonstrate that interest both in class and in the field and who let me really get to know them are the students who get great recommendations.