How to get Strong Letters of Recommendation in College: Even when you’re a freshman

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You’ve found an amazing summer internship, and you can’t wait to apply.

 

Resume? Check.

Cover letter? Check.

Letters of Recommendation? Wait, what?!

 

I can’t tell you how many times I found amazing internship opportunities but was stopped dead in my tracks after seeing it required letters of recommendation. You probably needed letters of recommendation when applying to college, but it’s not a great idea to ask your high school teacher for a recommendation when you’re in college.

Relationships with your professors can be so much different than the relationships you develop with your teachers. Depending on the size of your college, you may have up to 300 people in your class! You only see your professor maybe 30 times! How are you possibly able to form a relationship to where they can write a strong letter on your behalf?!

The good news is that strategies are the same to get a recommendation from your professor whether you are a freshman or a senior. It may feel like it’s impossible to get a strong letter of recommendation when you’re in a new class, but it is feasible. However, it will require some work on your end, especially if you have a large class size. But hey, you came to college to put in hard work, right?

Below are my tips and tricks for getting the professor to say “yes” to your request for a (strong) letter of recommendation. 

1. Participate in class.

Even in a lecture hall of 200 students, you can and should participate. In larger lectures, professors typically ask fewer questions, but some still ask questions of their students. Regardless, sit near the front. In smaller classes, participation may be part of your grade in the class, even up to 20% of your total grade, so you’re only doing yourself a favor by participating! Even if the professor doesn’t ask questions, you should ask questions to show you are engaged with the course material. You can start off with small goals: aim to ask one question per week, then increase to one question per class over time. 

2. Go to office hours.

Sometimes, there’s just no easy way to participate in class. I had classes where the professor talked a mile a minute and it felt nearly impossible to ask questions. In addition to making an effort to participate in class, also make a habit to go to office hours. If your internship is asking for letters of recommendation, it’s likely a competitive internship, meaning that they are looking for very motivated students. Don’t be discouraged by some professors’ office hours being ‘by appointment only.’ While this is often incorrectly interpreted as the professor saying ‘I don’t have time for my students,’ it’s usually because they had open office hours in the past but no students attended. Seriously! However, don’t just show up without a plan – be sure to drop by office hours with something to discuss. Use office hours as an opportunity to get any help you need with course content, but also this can be a time to ask questions about research or your career. As I got further in my academic career, I took advantage of my professors’ office hours frequently to discuss my job prospects, graduate school plans, and their research. Professors usually love to talk about their own experiences and offer you advice.

3. Just because you don’t get an A (or haven’t finished the class) doesn’t mean you won’t get a strong letter of recommendation.

Asking for a letter of recommendation before the class is over is okay so long as you’ve already made a good impression (see #1 and #2). If you’ve been participating in class, going to office hours regularly, and performing well or showing a solid effort in the class, in my opinion, there’s no harm in asking for a letter of recommendation. I asked for a letter of recommendation at around ⅔ of the way through the semester for my graduate school application. While I have no way of know if that specific letter got me into graduate school, I can say that I did get into the program!

4. Provide all necessary material – but you might be asked to write the letter yourself.

Once you get the green light from your recommender, they may ask you for some materials. If they don’t, or if they just ask for a resume or CV, you should provide:

  1. An updated resume or CV
  2. What you are applying for 
  3. Why you are applying; how does this opportunity fit into your goals?
  4. How the recommender knows you and highlights. This is particularly important if you’re asking someone who you haven’t corresponded with regularly since taking their class or working for them. For example, you may be asking a professor that you had last year for a class. You received an A+ in a class, received high marks on your final paper, presented a 10-minute group presentation about mitosis. You will remember more than they will and any information you provide is absolute gold for the recommender. Simple bullets like “Received an A+ in Environmental Science, Fall 2017” or if you’re asking a former supervisor “Awarded best undergraduate poster, Summer 2017” will jog the recommender’s memory about how amazing you are! If you can provide copies of any work completed, even better.
  5. What you want the recommender to emphasize. Do you want the person to emphasize your ability to work in teams? Your ability to lead a research project? Especially if you have to submit more than one recommendation letter, be strategic in what you want each person to emphasize.
  6. How they need to submit your letter. It will most likely be via an online portal. Let your recommender know that they will receive a message (likely through email) from the portal with instructions to submit. If the opportunity requires the recommender to mail the letter, provide an envelope with the recipient address and postage so they don’t have to pay to mail your letter!

I was shocked when a professor of mine asked me to draft a letter of recommendation for myself. Honestly, I was a little offended. However, this is generally a common practice. When I thought about it, it’s not too dissimilar as to almost every other professors’ requests to write their own. Usually, when a professor agrees to write a letter on your behalf, they will request your resume/CV, the information about the opportunity you are applying for, points about you that you want them to emphasize, how you performed in their class (if a past professor). I presented many recommenders with an organized folder of that information; this professor was basically just asking me to write it all into a 1-page document. If you’re asked to write your own, I highly doubt any recommender would just sign the bottom. They will likely tweak and edit to make it sound like their voice and adjust as necessary, but you’ve helped them tremendously with the important fundamental information.  

5. Ask early

Ask at least 4-6 weeks in advance. However, take into account any breaks or holidays that might coincide with the time between the request and the due date. Don’t expect the recommender to write your letter on holidays or over spring break (although that might be the time that they do actually write it).

6. See the larger picture.

You are asking your professor to tell strangers about how great you are. Make it as easy as possible for them to do so! If all you did was raise your hand a few times in class but didn’t go to office hours, didn’t do well on some major assignments, and were frequently absent, what does the professor have to write about? I’ve written letters of recommendation for former student interns, and trust me, it’s much easier to write a glowing recommendation than anything less. It’s like writing a research paper – the more content you have the easier to write! Be the student that the professor can give a glowing recommendation for. For example:

 

Josie is one of the top 5% of students I have ever taught. Josie consistently participates in class and asks thoughtful questions, illustrating not only her preparedness for class but also her ability to critically analyze peer-reviewed literature at a level far beyond what I expect for a first-semester freshman.

Additionally, Josie frequently visits my office hours where she continues to engage thoughtfully with the coursework, demonstrating a strong desire to master the material. During our office hour appointments, I have gotten to know Josie and learned about her extracurricular activities. We have discussed her passion for psychology and believe that she will be an incredible asset as a research assistant at the Center for Psychology. I strongly recommend her without hesitation.

 

Vs.

 

Jade is a student in an economics class I am teaching this fall. She attends class regularly and sits near the front.

Jade has visited my office hours on occasion, and we discuss course topics and her career path. She seems very interested in economics. Her peers seem to like her. I offer my recommendation for the program.

 

Be like Josie, and not Jade!

What are your tips for getting a great letter of recommendation? Let me know in the comments!

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