Questionable Letters of Reference (Bonus…we need guest posts!)

Before I get to Kristina’s question today, let me first announce that WE NEED GUEST POSTS! For the next two weeks, anyway. I’ll be on the road constantly for the ad agency over the next two weeks (Santa Fe, N.M. and Vienna, Austria), so if any of you razor-sharp co-eds out there feel like pounding out a few hundred words about the school-related topic of your choice, please do so through the “Submit Your Question” link in the navbar above.

You don’t have to ask first — just paste your post into the “what’s your question” area and we’ll figure it out. If we can use what you send us, we will, and of course we’ll credit you and link back to your website or Facebook profile or wherever you want us to link to. Thanks in advance for the help!

letters of recommendation
When all else fails...

Now, back to Kristina, who’s got a dilemma about letters of recommendation. I’m gonna go ahead and abbreviate those from now on as LOR, just to save my fingers a little work.

Hi Judge Josh! Thank you for all the anecdotes and comical relief from what is usually a stressful process (i.e. college and all of its counterparts).

Thanks for reading!

I am getting my degree next spring and am applying for graduate school. I’ve been working in a lab with a professor for four years, and he has always written wonderful letters of recommendation for me.

Outstanding! For those of you not as close to graduating as Kristina, it’s a good idea to cultivate these sorts of relationships with two or three professors so that they’ll write you LOR when you need them. Scope them out early — junior year, possibly even sophomore year if you know what you’re going to major in.

I will be graduating with a double major in Italian Studies and Integrative Biology.

I think you’re the only person I’ll ever meet with that double major. Wouldn’t have thought about that one when I wrote the double degree post the other day. Either way, congrats! You obviously have a brain whose left side and right side function equally well. 🙂

PROBLEM: I need THREE letters to apply for grad school!

No biggie. Obviously the best and easiest ones to get are from the profs who know you inside and out, but there can only be so many of those. You might find that teachers who have had you only for a couple classes, and perhaps even just one, will write you a strong letter.

Here’s a little tactic that’s worth doing, also (for everyone, not just Kristina): When you’re approaching that last letter-writer — someone about whom you just aren’t sure — lead with a combination of humility and flattery, even if neither is entirely heartfelt.

Example: Don’t just say, “Hey Dr. So-and-So, would you mind writing a grad-school recommendation letter for me?” Instead, say something like this:

“Hey, Dr. So-and-So, I’m preparing my grad school application for the University of Palookaville, and I need three letters of recommendation. I thought about it and I’d really like to have one of those come from you. But honestly, only if you feel like you’re familiar enough with my work for you to be comfortable recommending me. Is that something you’d be willing to think about and let me know in a couple of days?”

That’s a MUCH softer request, it feeds their ego a bit, it shows them that you’re respectful of the integrity of the recommendation process, and you also show respect to them personally by asking them to take time alone to consider it.

If they don’t say yes on the spot (they probably will), they’ll probably say so when they get back to you. And if they don’t, then hey — you did your best. If you’re a good student, you should have more than enough teachers respond positively to the above approach to fill out your grad school app nicely.

I have another potential professor now (I go to all his office hours and scored well on his last exam),

OK — he should be fine, too.

but I am wondering about the third one. I worked in her lab for 4 months when I studied a semester abroad in Italy and only talked to her a few times (she seemed like she was always busy, and I didn’t want to bother her, plus I was a little nervous about saying something wrong in Italian…). She said she would write a letter but admitted she doesn’t know me that well, so I imagination her letter is mostly speculation.

OK. Well, if she said she’d write you one, then it’ll probably be at least passable. If she didn’t feel like she could endorse you, then she would’ve told you no. However, if she came out and said “I don’t know you very well,” that sounds like she’s not 100% comfortable with it. Her letter will probably be fine, but you can probably do better.

Why don’t you go over your other possible professors and try the approach I recommended above? If they all say no, you can still use the Italian lady’s letter. Again, it’ll probably be fine to get you where you need to go, but you might as well try a couple more locally who know you better than she does and might give you something stronger.

Could this potentially weak letter of recommendation jeopardize grad school admission?

Eh…I kinda doubt it. LOR are only going to make or break you, I think, if your grades and test scores are very weak. If your grades and tests are solid, then the LOR are just there to ice the cake and/or let the committee know in some combination of code language and invisible ink that, despite your fine marks, you’re really a sociopath suspected in multiple off-campus homicides.

So, probably not. Good luck, and let us know how it goes!!

— What about you guys? Any recommendations on who to get LOR from if obvious examples don’t present themselves? Let us know in the comments below!

15 thoughts on “Questionable Letters of Reference (Bonus…we need guest posts!)”

  1. All I can say is this:
    The question about reference letters was put to the graduate supervisor at my grad school. This guy has sat on about a zillion admissions committees. He said that reference letters are very important. He also said that the applicant should really be looking for GLOWING (I’m pretty sure that was his exact word) reference letters, not just GOOD reference letters. Why? Because almost all of the applicants and probably all of the applicants who have a decent shot at getting in will have GOOD reference letters. Therefore, GOOD reference letters just don’t stand out anymore. What you really want to get your hands on are GLOWING reference letters.

    That said, I think if you have two glowing reference letters and one good reference letter, you’ll still be just fine. The bottom line is that the application committee doesn’t just want to know that you’re a typical honours/straight-“A”s student. They want to know that you’re a cut above the average honours/straight-A student, especially if you’re hoping to get top-dollar in terms of funding.

  2. I tell my all my classmates that the best time to ask a professor for a letter of reference is right after you have completed their class (assuming you did well in their class). This way, your accomplishments and merits as a student are very fresh in their mind.

    I make it a rule of thumb every semester or two to ask one or two professors to write a letter of recommendation for me. That way, I have plenty in my file for not only applying to other schools, but also for applying for scholarships. This is also handy three or four semesters later, because it is likely that professor will still have your letter on file, and can read it to refresh their memory.

    Another thing to do … many colleges, like the one I attend currently (Cal State Fullerton) have an office that will hold copies of your letters of recommendation so that you can request copies as needed. It’s a great service and can be very useful down the line.

  3. I don’t know if you’re involved in anything non-academic, but one of my best recommendation letters ever came from a Mock-Trial Attorney Coach back in high school coming into college. It held weight in our local community (because he was a well known lawyer), let the admissions people know my personal leadership potential outside of academia, and because he wrote it to his own Alma-Mater, it stood out.

    Also, now that I’m in college I have several people outside of my discipline that write great letters. One is the Honors Program Dean, and the other is the Faculty Adviser for the Honors Service Fraternity I’m in called Phi Eta Sigma. She holds weight with that organization nationally (which I am Vice President of, so we work closely together) and she also is important to campus, as the Director of First-Year Initiatives and works at the University College. If you can find someone who wears multiple hats like that and who rubs elbow with the President of the University it would be great because it would show you can roll with the ‘higher-ups’ so to speak.

    In essence, find those one or two people who are part of your major/s and then branch out to anything you’re in that is non academic, such as a job/internship boss, organization leaders, club leaders, and even community leaders if you are involved in volunteer or other work. You might be able to think of someone who knows you and your strengths better, and it will also show the diversity of your skills to the committees reading the letters.

  4. Isn’t it helpful, also, if you have a professor who’s not 100% sure about what to write in a letter, to give them a resume or at least a list of things you’re proud about doing?

  5. AAAAUUGHH!! Judge Josh, you are a MINDREADER. I’m in the process of applying for a TO-DIE-FOR internship in a Merck laboratory, and I’ve been fretting like hell over the letters of recommendation. I have a biochemistry professor from over the summer that offered me a recommendation (after I scored a 112% on an exam… Zing!!), but I don’t know how to collect on the offer… I actually haven’t even read this page yet, I was too excited about your awesome timing with my life’s dilemmas.

  6. Since her double major was partly in Italian Studies, if she is planning to enter a program, in which Italian Studies or language/cultural studies in general is a positive, she should accept the recommendation. This professor already said she would write one, unless you have reason to believe that she is a totally unreliable nutcase, you’ll probably get a decent letter which will reflect your time in her group. However, if Italian Studies is not important to the program you’re trying to enter, ut wouldn’t hurt to “shop around” for someone more suitable who does know you better.

  7. My personal belief is that if the instructor seems or even more in your case expresses any apprehension about writing the letter, keep looking elsewhere. I am applying to law school, and you don’t ever even see what is written. The letters go to a processing center (LSAC) where you assign copies to go to individual schools. I have two recommenders I am not actually using because after asking them, one seemed apprehensive about it since I had not had many classes with him, and the other just seemed too busy to write one I have any confidence in. I was a transfer student so I didn’t have time to really foster a long relationship with many teachers, but I did find enough that I can depend on to get my file complete.

    Best of luck.

  8. One thing you should consider is trying to get letters of recommendation from supervisors of extracurricular activities in college or from work supervisors. They may be able to be just as worthy, unless you need this to specifically address your graduate studies. Good luck getting into the program you choose.

  9. Boy, there are a lot of cynical people who comment on these things. Not specifically this post, just all in general.

  10. One good way to help out a busy, or uncertain professor is to write a breif mock letter outlining your grade from their class, any projects you worked on, any psoitive feedback they gave you in relation to projects or overall grade.

    This does two things. First it gives them a refresher of what kind of student you were if it has been a few terms since you were in their classes. Second, some busy profs have been known to basically copy a student’s good, self written recomendation saving the trouble themselves the trouble of having to remember or think what to write.

    I have even had professors ask me to write my own letter and they will sign it. I find it works with busy profs if you remeber to not go crazy and be reasonable with your own praise. Remeber you have to keep it with in believeable limits and be truthful about your achievements. But if you have written feedback from a project or exam where the prof made positive comments use those.

    I did an internship for a prof that also works in HR dept of the community college I attended. As part of the internship she had to fill out this form grading my work, and class grade. It in itself it held tons of info that looks good on a resume or LOR. But she didn’t have time to write a LOR for me. So I took what she put in my evlaution in letter form and gave her that thinking she would use it to rewrite my LOR. All she did was look it over and decide it looked good and signed it. It got me into Brown U and a couple others universities I applied to, so you can try that.

    Some profs might want you to give them a bullet point list so they don’t have to work to hard to come up with things to write. It is not cheating to give a prof that hasn’t seen you in a while an outline of what you accomplished so you are fresh in their minds. This doesn’t work if you did poorly in their class, but if you made good grades, and interacted in class and projects then it gives them something to make your letter unique.

    Good luck:)

  11. Someone further up the page suggested asking grad students. While this can be a good option, it may not always be a sure bet. We’re told in training that we really shouldn’t be writing them if we’re TAs or section leaders–it should instead be done by the faculty member teaching the lecture course, and the grad student should instead help mediate (especially if the course is so big the prof wouldn’t have much chance to get to know the student really well). We can recommend you for a letter of recommendation, but we may not actually be able to write it for you.

    If the grad student IS the one running the course and not just the lecture sections, then it might be okay. Just ask, and they’ll tell you if they can do it. If you ask and they say no, it may be a policy thing, it might not be you. 🙂

  12. Honestly, that’s a much better situation than mine. I had a teacher who loved me write my recommendation, and it was flat, had spelling errors, and no real mention of my skills (Yes, I had to get a copy of the letter myself for one application, so I read it…)

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