Part of my job as a professor is to write letters of recommendation for students. I'm happy to do it, too. However, to make the process effective for both of us, there's some information I'd like you to be aware of.
A letter of recommendation that says "Sally took my course in X and got a grade of Y" is not a powerful letter. For most things that you apply for (jobs, internships, scholarships), you will send a transcript, so the selection committee reading your application will know what grade you got in different classes. You want a letter that can say more.
Most selection committees want to know something about your character from someone who knows you well. Some of the things they might be interested in include:
If you and I have not had a working relationship where I might know some of those things about you, I can probably only write the "she took my course X and got a grade of Y" letter. If that's the case, you might want to think about whether there's a better person to ask.
How might I know those things? Ideally, you and I had a one-on-one working relationship, say for an independent study or a research project. You might have visited me in office hours so that I got to know you more as an individual. You might have distinguished yourself in class or lab by the questions you asked or comments you made.
Sometimes, you need a letter of recommendation and there's no one better to ask, in which case I'm happy to write you the letter I can, even if it's the not-so-strong one. Everyone has to start somewhere.
The process works best if you do the following:
As happy as I am to write letters of recommendation, they take time, which is always a scarce resource. I will feel awful if I miss your deadline, but you will feel worse. A friend of mine from grad school missed an outstanding job opportunity because his thesis advisor forgot to send a letter of recommendation. Don't let that happen to you! So, nag:
Naturally, it's not pleasant to nag, but with a little effort you can do it kindly and politely, particularly since I've asked you to nag me. A simple email saying something like.
Hi Professor Anderson, I just wanted to remind you that the letter of recommendation to MIT is due next Friday. The letter can be sent electronically as a PDF to email@example.com. Thanks!
Notice the list of things that selection committees are usually interested in finding out about. Arrange your college career to build up a portfolio of professors, supervisors and mentors who can speak to those qualities, whether that is with me or anyone else. Try to create one-on-one relationships where someone can get to know you and your work well.
If you have built such a relationship, and you know that person would be able to write a strong letter of recommendation, but you don't have a current need, it might be smart to ask them to write you a letter anyhow. They can either keep it themselves or send a copy to the Center for Work and Service, which will keep generic letters on file. I'm happy to keep such a letter myself. Then, if, say, you decide to go to law school two years after graduation, you can email me and ask me to write you a letter. I can then re-work that letter relatively easily to target law school, since most of the hard work will have been done earlier.
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