The Student’s Guide to Getting Good Letters of Recommendation

By Elizabeth Lehman

Getting a recommendation letter from a professor can be daunting for students. Working hard, getting to know professors and being punctual to class makes a student eligible for a good recommendation letter, which is necessary to have when applying for jobs and internships.

In a recommendation letter, a professor who has had a student for at least one course describes why the student would be a good fit for a position or award based on his or her achievements and character.

Christina Hardy, director of Career and Academic Advising, said a student’s future career can depend on a good recommendation letter.

“A positive reference letter for either graduate school or employment purposes will either make or break your chances of making it to the next step in your career,” Hardy said. “So developing professional relationships with faculty members is very important.”

Julia Gergits, chair of the English department, said students should make a good impression on their teachers early on by working hard and showing effort.

“It’s often a combination of traits and accomplishments,” Gergits said. “It’s not just high grades, although that’s always good; it’s also reaching beyond requirements, helping fellow students, being prepared for class and so on.”

Zara Rowlands, chair of the human ecology department, says students should not be afraid to communicate with their professors by asking questions and voicing concerns they may have. It helps if the professors get to know the students.

“Form a relationship with me — talk to me like a human being,” Rowlands said. “It helps me to want to recommend you. Most jobs require you to communicate and work with other people, so show me that you can do that.”

For students who are struggling in class, talking to professors about their weak areas and asking for help is a good thing, Rowlands said.

“Attitude is everything,” she said. “Speak up, strengthen yourself where you are weak, so I can say in my letter that even though you might not be at the top of your class, you worked at improving yourself.”

Professors need plenty of time to prepare a recommendation letter. With this in mind, students shouldn’t try to get a letter the day before they need it, said Dave Davis, professor in the journalism department.

“Ideally, there are a few weeks to put it together, because to do a good one, it takes work,” Davis said. “It has to be well-written, and it has to persuade whoever is reading it, and it should have facts and information in it.”

The student also needs to give the professor details about their achievements and help them customize the letter, depending on what the award or position they are applying for is.

“Give me an outline of your accomplishments … so I can tailor my letter to emphasize how you make an excellent candidate,” he said.

If a professor doesn’t think a student deserves a good recommendation letter because of their grades or behavior, they may decline to write one or write about their shortcomings. Diana Awad Scrocco, an internship coordinator, has received negative letters from professors about students.

“A couple of my colleagues were very up-front about the student’s not being reliable coming to class or whatever,” Scrocco said. “So, people do that, people are honest in letters of recommendation.”