Letters of recommendation: Better know a professor

Note: Soon I’ll be writing a post with advice for high schoolers who need recommendation letters for college. While the steps would be somewhat different, the overall idea is the same: do something to stand out, and then build a relationship. Good luck!

It is incredibly important to have several professors who know you well and can write you recommendation letters. You should to get to know the faculty for a whole range of reasons, the best of which in my mind is that they tend to be some of the most interesting people you’ll ever meet. In later blog posts I’ll be writing about mentoring and how much I continue to benefit from my friendships with professors, both in practical and intangible ways. But let’s keep this particular blog post to the absolute brass tacks basics.

You have to have professors who can write you recommendation letters. The steps are very simple:

  • Step one: identify a professor
  • Step two: do well in their class
  • Step three: do one thing that’s “above and beyond”
  • Step four: approach the professor
  • The post-step step: keep a record
  • The post-post-step step: keep in touch

You will need references for scholarships, study abroad, jobs, grants, fellowships, internships, and future academic applications. These professors need to know your work, think highly of you, and have a positive example of how you are qualified and driven.

It is your job to identify these future recommendations sources, and to foster the relationship.

Let’s assume for now that you are not terribly interested in an academic future, and your passions in college revolve around some activity or skill not directly addressed in your classes. You will still need these recommendations, and it is absolutely still possible for you to get them. Here’s how:

Step one: Identify a professor

Ideally, at least one will be a full-time, tenured professor. This is for several reasons:

  1. They will probably stay at your university
  2. They will probably not suddenly quit academia
  3. They have good standing with your university, giving you more credibility
  4. They know how to write recommendation letters

If need be, one of your references can come from a graduate student who teaches a course or a discussion group. But make sure you have a letter or two from full faculty members.

Step two: Do well in class

Even if you are not particularly motivated by academics, you will probably have a class or two that you will enjoy and in which you will get good grades. If you are enjoying a course around halfway through a semester then give it a little extra strategic effort. You’ll be glad you did, not just for the grade, but seven years from now when your dream job requires an academic reference. Have it ready.

Step three: Do one thing to stand out

Beyond the grade, try to take at least one action to stand out in class. Maybe raise your hand more than usual. Maybe write the professor during week six with a question from the reading. Make it a good one: try to link the text to a current event or to some broader idea. Go above and beyond in one essay. Just take one action so that the professor will have something specific to say in a recommendation letter.

Note: While this is being strategic, this is not cheating or gaming the system. If you do this, you will actually get more out of the class and be a better student. Regardless of your end goal, these actions will honestly make you a better candidate and show initiative.

Step four: approach the professor

Toward the end of the semester, go talk to the professor or write an email. Let them know that you are planning to apply for scholarships or internships in the future, and ask if they would be willing to serve as a reference. That’s it. That’s all. They will probably say yes and tell you how long they will need in advance to get the letter written. And then you have your reference.

The post-step step: keep a record

Once you have someone who has agreed to be a reference, take an extra step for your own records that will make things easier in the future. Create a file on your computer with the essays written for the class, exam results, your final grade, the date you took the class (ideally classes—references are stronger if they are based with multiple courses with the same professor) and a quick description of your “above and beyond” action in the class.

Here’s why:

Let’s say your study abroad application needs a reference letter, and wants the professor to specifically highlight your intellectual curiosity. You email your professor requesting a reference letter, as well as the date(s) of your class(es), your grades, a copy of your best essay you wrote, and a couple of bullet points.


“...if possible, please highlight ways I demonstrated intellectual curiosity. Possible examples from your class were my frequent participation in discussion and the follow-up question I sent which linked our course material to [insert important current event here]. Also, in the final essay (attached here) you commented that I demonstrated a clear grasp of the subject matter.”

Etc, etc.

By doing the extra work of recording your work and your above-and-beyond, you can provide the professor with specific and detailed material for your reference letter. This will help everyone in the process. And it will continue to be relevant for years to come: eleven years after you graduate, you will still have that great final essay from your sophomore year. IF you save a copy.

The post-post-step step: keep in touch

Make sure you let your professors know if your applications are successful. If they have a hand in getting you a scholarship, write them a thank-you email. If they help your study abroad application, send a postcard while you’re away. Keep in touch. This shouldn’t be a burden, and should come from a sincere place of gratitude for their help. Keep them posted on your progress through school. If you’re not the academic type, let them know that you’ve landed a summer job as a rafting guide, or that a business contact brought up some literary work over a round of golf, and thank goodness you paid attention in that literature class way back in the day.

Take a bit of time to nurture the relationship you’ve built. And keep after it. It’s strategic, and it’s also good manners.

Ideally, you will have four or five professors identified who can write you letters. This should start your freshman year, if possible. Have a couple in your department, and others who can speak to your breadth of interests or skills. If you study a second language, make sure one reference can come from that department. If you have two majors, make sure you have at least one reference in each. If you are considering an academic career, make sure you have a relationship with the head of department or dean of your school. If you are particularly driven in a discipline like law, check to see if any law professors offer courses at the undergraduate level, or if they will be giving guest lectures for other classes. Get to know the people you need to know.

Mostly, pay attention. Don’t be caught by surprise the first time you need a reference letter. Be strategic and be prepared.

Please leave a comment and let me know what you think. Have I missed any important steps? Have you been particularly successful with reference letters? Do you have questions? Let me know!