Parents and Grandparents: Share this with your college students during winter break and teach them how to get the most out of their education. Great letters of recommendation can be the key to unlocking amazing opportunities.
Now that most of your college-student kids and grandkids are home for winter break, they are just taking in a deep breath of accomplishment, hoping to relax. Suddenly, it hits them:
"I forgot to get a letter of recommendation for my (fill in the blank: travel abroad application, internship application, whatever amazing experience they're dreaming of but forgot or put off getting the letter for.)
They look down at the computer (on their lap) and frantically type this over-punctuated e-mail:
"Dear Professor (I Hope I'm Spelling Your Name Right):
I know it has been sooooo long since we have spoken!!!!!! I was in your (fill in blank) course (last year, two years ago, ….) and when I think of all of my professors who know me best, it's YOU!!!!! I know this isn't a lot of notice and I'm soooooooo sorry about that. I know it's winter break and all, but I would be sooooooo grateful if you would write me a letter of recommendation for my (fill in blank of desperately desired program or experience). The deadline is (two hours, two days, two weeks). :( Can I also list you as a reference?????? Thank you sooooooo much for all of your help!!!!!!!!!
How do I know? Because I've gotten dozens of such notes. I'm the college professor they think knows them best, even if they haven't been in touch with me since forever. I'm the one they are certain will write the most accurate and strongest letter that describes them in all of their excellence and will get them into whatever program or experience they so desperately desire. And they're right. I do write a spectacular rec letter and offer specific, and if I do say so myself, AWESOME, phone references. I do so because I make sure I have the information I need in a timely fashion. How? I make my students abide by following rules:
1. Keep In Touch: If you take a course you love with a professor you think is terrific, KEEP IN CONTACT WITH HER. Visit her office hours. Send her updates on the cool courses or campus activities you're doing. Send her regularly updated resumes. She cannot (and will not) write about your or serve as an effective reference if she has no idea who you are.
2. Follow the Lawyer's Golden Rule: Any lawyer will tell you that you NEVER ask a question of your witness unless you already know the answer. Before you officially ask for any kind of letter or recommendation or for someone to be a reference for you, know exactly what they're going to write or say about you. Go to their office hours and say: 'If I asked you to write a letter of recommendation or serve as a reference, what would you say?'
3. Take the Hint: What if you request a letter of recommendation from a professor and you get this note in reply:
"Dear Student: I am willing to write a letter for you or serve as a reference. I am able to confirm you were in my class, that you participated solidly in class discussions and your writing showed progress, from what I can recall. I would place you in the top 35 percent of students in that course."
If you get a note indicating the letter will be anything less than stellar, say thanks, but no thanks. A teacher is doing you a huge favor letting you know that their letter may be factually accurate, but would do more harm than good.
4. Give Us a Heads Up: Stay on top of what's due and when. That's just as important for you as it is for us. Think of it as sending a save-the-date e-mail. If you know you want to do a travel-abroad program or a summer internship, make sure you make note of the deadlines early and send a simple heads up to the professors so they can both make time to write and meet with you before so get an update on your experiences since class.
5. Use the 4-Week Rule:You may write your papers for us the night before they're due, but we need time. Give a teacher at least 4 weeks to write the letter or fill out the forms (that includes time to send it.) Professors have entire universes of other lives besides teaching. We have book and research deadlines, endless committee assignments, mentoring relationships. Respect our time as well.
6. Self-Addressed-Stamped-Envelopes: If there are forms to fill out and addresses and other logistical details, it is your job to get those to me, not my job to search for them. Provide me with everything I need to write and send as quickly as possible. It may seem stupid but I know people who have forgotten to send letters of recommendation because they were sitting on their desk, waiting for a stamp.
7. Reminders: We're human. We're juggling a lot, just like you. Don't stalk us but do send us reminders to confirm we are working on or have sent the letters. It's also completely reasonable to contact us to ask if anyone has called to ask for a phone reference. It's useful information to know what a potential employer asked or was impressed by.
8. Thank You and Follow Up: Keep us posted about what happened. I love getting e-mails like: "I'm going to London!!!!!! Thanks so much!!" (except for the over-punctuation). If you don't get the position or the spot, meet with the professor to go over your resume, application and interview answers to see what you need to work on. This also helps the professor get to know more about you so she can offer an ever stronger recommendation next time.
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