After you graduate, if not before, when applying to jobs or grad schools, you need letters of recommendation from your professors. Rounding out your resume, these letters attest to what you’ve done and who you are, professionally speaking. As professors, we are happy to write these letters for our students. We’re grateful for the kind letters our own professors wrote for us in the past. We want to write you stellar letters, letters that will help move your career forward.
In a real sense, however, we don’t write your letters. You do.
You write your own letters by the reputation and relationships you build during your years in college. When your professors sit down to type out a recommendation on official letterhead, we just do our best to record in words what you’ve already written with your actions.
If you want strong letters of recommendation, there are some practical considerations. It can be helpful to get letters from professors whose own reputation and credentials carry heft. It’s best to ask us for letters a couple months before you need them written. Also, you should provide us with plenty of information to help us write the letters, telling what you want us to focus on, reminding us of the work you’ve done with us, giving us a copy of your resume and other application materials, including a cover letter, writing sample, portfolio, etc.
More importantly—and this is why I hope you’re reading this long before you need it—you need to spend months or, preferably, years building good relationships and a good reputation with your professors. Here are some important things to keep in mind:
Brilliance is neither necessary nor sufficient.
To get it out of the way, I start with one thing you do not need. If you’re incredibly smart, wonderful. I won’t deny it helps. But let me be clear, the other things on this list—things you can actually control—matter far more.
Showing up matters a lot. Show up to events. Speak up in class discussions. Take part in extracurricular activities, like field trips and workshops. Perhaps work as a TA in the department. Volunteer. Tutor. Generally being involved—in things your professors know about and care about—goes a long way.
Invest in relationships.
Build professional relationships with your professors. Take more than one class with the same professor. Drop by our offices from time to time. Invite us to lunch or coffee. Ask us for career advice or feedback on your work. Tell us what you’re learning in your classes or in your reading. Share what you hope to do with your degree and your life.
Demonstrate professional virtues.
The three “professional virtues” are (1) meeting deadlines, (2) completing all your work thoroughly, and (3) making sure to communicate with those you’re responsible to if ever you cannot do so. Faithfully doing what’s expected of you, day in and day out, shows you to be competent and reliable.
Go above and beyond.
If it’s impressive to do what’s expected of you, then it’s even more impressive to do more. Whether with school, work, or other activities, regularly putting in extra time, effort, and creativity shows you are committed to doing your best, not just the minimum required for a grade or paycheck.
Do well. But also do good. Volunteer, peer tutor, take on service learning projects, lend a hand when there’s a need. Through helping others, you can learn and grow a lot. Moreover, helping others shows you’re not just in this for yourself.
Don’t merely go through the motions in school. It’s fairly easy to pass classes and get decent grades without really understanding or being able to apply what you’re supposed to be learning. Don’t settle for that. Make sure to actually learn how to do things. (Writing especially!)
Be able to show your accomplishments.
So far, I hope this list makes clear that what matter most are small habits that add up over time. At the same time, it also helps to accomplish specific things we can point to and name. If you can, lead a project, put on an event, publish or present your work, serve as an officer in a student organization, win a contest or an award.
Put in the time and effort to get decent grades.
Within a certain range, grades don’t matter all that much. Most strong students earn As and Bs, which is good enough. It’s the higher and lower grades that stand out. If you earn almost all As, that’s impressive (and more important, I’ll add as a caveat, if you want to go to grad school). Earning more than a few Cs or Ds raises eyebrows. If you struggle academically, despite trying your best, you can balance out your record with other strengths. If extenuating life circumstances have set you back, you can talk to us about it, and we can certainly understand. But if you’ve just not put enough time and effort into your work, that puts you into more of a pickle.
You don’t have to impress your professors all the time. You don’t have to avoid making any mistakes or hide your faults. We are most impressed when we can see both your strengths and weaknesses and watch you grow—improve, get better, become more mature, more skillful—over time. Indeed, if you show you can grow, then we know that, given time, there’s no telling where you can go.
In sum, my advice boils down to this:
Getting strong letters from your professors is not about being brilliant or perfect or better than anyone else. It’s about being faithful, month after month, year after year, in the small things. It’s about developing relationships. It’s about looking out for others. It’s about having at least a few notable accomplishments. It’s about learning from your mistakes and failures. It’s about always growing.
Of course, to clarify, your professors’ letters do not somehow sum up the worth of your work or life. After all, it’s possible we could fail to see the full extent of what you’ve accomplished. My point is not that the letters define your work and your life but that your work and your life provide the basis for the letters. And, I should say, getting strong letters are the least benefit of living and working well.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Paul T. Corrigan, an English professor, teaches writing and literature at Southeastern University in Lakeland, Florida. He’s written about whether to go to grad school in English, why to keep your college books, and other stuff. He lives in the Peace River Watershed, where he walks to work.