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Letters of recommendation

“Hi, Professor Smith. I was in your Psychology 120 class 3 semesters ago and I wondered if you could write a letter of recommendation for me?”

What are the chances that Professor Smith knows an individual student from a large lecture class from three semesters ago? What could Professor Smith say about this student? Professor Smith could look at the attendance and grade records and attest to the fact that the student had been in his class and received whatever grade and that is all the professor could say.

But a company that asks for a letter of recommendation doesn’t want to know if the student attended the class. The company wants to read an objective statement with supporting, concrete examples relevant to the position for which the student is applying. The statement needs to balance the positive aspects of the student with areas for growth. The letter should include how the writer knows the student, as well as a basis of comparison such as level of course difficulty, grading criteria, or specific work conditions.

Depending on the purpose for the reference letter, relevant information to include in the letter might be:

Leadership/teamwork ability Initiative

Consistency of performance Integrity

Maturity Motivation

Judgment Perseverance

Empathy Tolerance

Commitment Decision-making skills

Writing ability Analytical skills

Data skills Scholarship and future intellectual promise

Can a professor who only sees you in class speak to these issues? Probably not…so, get to know your instructors, your academic advisor, the advisors of your student organizations, the residence hall or residential life manager, the supervisor at work, and other people in authority positions. How do you get to know them?

  • Make an appointment to visit with them during their office hours.

  • Invite them for coke or coffee or lunch

Share your goals and dreams with them. Talk to them about hurdles you have jumped, problems you have solved, and mountains you have climbed. Share your failures and frustrations also.

These shouldn’t be one-way conversations. Ask them about their career journeys, including their successes and failures. Find out about their dreams and goals when they were your age. Ask for advice about steps they recommend you take to get where you want to go.

And obviously, this doesn’t all happen in one meeting. This is really about building relationships with key people in your life who can help you achieve your goals. Meet with them periodically to update them, to get new advice, and to give them a chance to get to know you as well as you getting to know them.

Be sure to email a thank you note to them after each time you meet with them. Every once in a while, you can even send a hand written note to thank them.

This sounds like it takes time…and it does. But it will definitely be worth it when they write awesome letters of reference which helps you get what you want – that internship, first job, or entry into graduate school.

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