How Important Are Professor Recommendations?
Very. One big mistake many students make is not thinking very carefully about getting recommendation letters. What is in those letters is often what gets you that job or into graduate school. Why?
To tell you the truth, when it comes down to choosing those final candidates for a position, most of them are almost identical in test scores, grades, and experience. So how do employers or graduate schools choose? You guessed it, they often turn to your recommendation letters because that tells them about the intangible things that make a person succeed or not, such as:
- Ability to get along with other people
- How well you listen and respond to criticism
- Whether you are a good leader or follower
- How well you work in a group
- What you do when you encounter difficulties and setbacks
A recommendation will ideally describe you in ways that are similar to how you present yourself in person and on paper. Even better, it may tell the interviewer or employer things that you may not be able to communicate easily, like the fact that you are usually the one to come up with the most creative ideas or that you always play a supporting and encouraging role when you work with a team.
Convinced? Follow my steps to make sure you do everything you can to get the position you want.
1. Choose Carefully
Unfortunately, many students make recommendations an afterthought, and they may not have good recommendations because they got them from the wrong person, or at the last minute.
Here are some tips to make sure you get the recommendations you deserve:
Make a Plan
Don’t just think about getting a recommendation at the last minute. Start thinking about who will be able to recommend you for jobs and/or graduate school as early as possible, ideally your freshman year so you can get to know that professor well and take several of their classes. The better you prepare for this, the better your recommendations will be.
Who Should You Ask to Recommend You?
- Someone who knows you well.
- Someone who is generally a positive person.
- Someone in your field if possible.
- Someone who is prompt and generally available.
2. Be Respectful
- Be Sure the Person Knows You: Plan early in college to think about who you will get recommendations from, take more than one class from that person, talk with them outside of class, go to office hours briefly to talk about your career goals. Let the person gets to know you.
- Be Professional: Ask if the person has time to do your recommendation, give it to them two weeks before it is due to make sure the person has everything they need to complete it and send it (include stamped and addressed envelopes if it is going to be mailed).
- Be Thoughtful: Understand that writing a recommendation is asking a favor. Approach the person that way. Try not to ask for last-minute recommendations. If you do, apologize. Ask them if they have the time to do it. If they say they don't, find someone else. Be sure to send thank-you notes to people who fill out recommendations for you. You might even consider giving a small gift card for coffee or bringing in cookies, tea or another small gift as a thank you for their effort to help you get into graduate school or a job. Don't forget to let them know the good news when you do get accepted!
- Be Sure to Be Remembered Well: Keep in mind that you may need to ask for recommendations from this same person in the future. The way you behave in asking for recommendations says a lot about your character and may influence how the person writes about you.
3. Help Them Write It
When I returned to graduate school after 10 years in the workforce, I needed a recommendation from a professor. I wondered if any of them would remember me. Here is how I got an excellent recommendation:
- Research: Be sure to look at the current website of the college or business to find out which people who might know you are still working there. I found my favorite professor was retired, but still taught some classes.
- Provide Sample Work: I sent my request to that professor, but instead of having him rely on his memory about who I was, I sent in a photo and some of my papers from his class.
- Provide Transcripts: Include a copy of your transcripts so they can see how you did in other classes. That way, the professor can comment based on your whole performance at the University, not just how well you did in their class. If you have some grades that aren't up to par, be sure to include a note explaining why.
- Jog Their Memory: I also gave my professor some information about what I had been doing over the past ten years. Moreover, I tried to help him remember me by talking about what I remembered from his class and also what I liked about his teaching. In addition, I told him about a few things he had told me when I visited his office that I had remembered and advice that I had followed.
- Give Them Writing Ideas: As a professor, I've often had to write recommendations, and sometimes I'm at a loss to remember specific things about a student I had four years previously. I'm also not sure what type of things the student wants in the letter. Now I suggest that students write me a "template" of what they think I could say that would help them get that job or position in graduate school. I use that template to help me write a letter that fits that particular person and situation. Some professors won't want you to tell them what to write, but you can always ask if they would like you to give them some information about how you are the best fit for that position. Your recommendation will be done better and faster if you give the professor something to write about!
4. Say Thanks
After you know that the recommendation has been sent, be sure to send a note of thanks to the person and you might even want to consider a small gift like:
- Gift card for coffee
- Candy or cookies
- A hand-written note
- Some small gift from your hometown or country
Why send a gift? Recommendations don't really help that professional in their own career. In fact, they are doing you a big favor and taking time away from their work to help you along. Most professionals are glad to help out and especially like the chance to tell other people about students or employees they particularly enjoyed. However, it is important to remember that when they write a recommendation for you, they are doing you a favor, so treat it that way.
More importantly? You might very well need to come back and ask that person for a recommendation again in the future. Make sure they remember you as someone thoughtful, polite, respectful, and appreciative.
5. Follow Up With Your Professor
If you get the job, the internship, or into graduate school, don't forget to email the people who gave you a recommendation. Let them know their work helped you to get in. Why? First of all, it is just a courtesy to tell them. Secondly, it may encourage them to write even more positively about you in the future.
In my case, giving my professor plenty of information to help him remember me paid off. I got into the highly competitive program. However, it wasn't until a year later that I found out from a fellow graduate student how important my preparation of the recommendation letter had been. The student told me he had been in the group choosing the new graduate students. When my name came up, some professors who didn't know me were concerned that I had been out of the field for a long time. Luckily, the professor I'd asked to recommend me argued strongly in the committee that I was an excellent student and that my previous work showed I would succeed in the program.
Take the time to follow these tips and you will have the best chance at succeeding in getting the position you want!
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Virginia Kearney (author) from United States on December 02, 2011:
Stephanie--that is an excellent point, and I think that is why it is so important to do your best to make a good choice in the person recommending you. I didn't add it in this hub, but I told my class that writing recommendations is hard to do because often you can't remember specific things about the student. I usually would include a letter which could mention some things that person would know about you or which would pertain to the position you've asked for. You could include transcripts, a resume, a list of activities--or maybe even what you have included in your application. That gives the recommender something to go on when they write.
Stephanie Bradberry from New Jersey on December 02, 2011:
This hub gives an interesting perspective for the way recommendations are used. Something to consider adding is how the length of a recommendation can hurt you. This happened to me. While my recommendations were good, the committee did not think they were long enough (I guess in-depth) to help move me up some more.