How to Get the Perfect Letter of Recommendation

   Are you thinking about applying to grad school?  How about law school or medical school? Are you applying for an internship for the summer? Or, an even scarier thought, a real job to start your career? If you answered yes to any of those questions, you’re going to need a letter of recommendation. 

   Asking for a letter of recommendation from your professor can be nerve-wracking. Lucky for you,  HCHI got to sit down with a University of Hawai’i at Manoa professor, Dr. Daphne Desser, to find out the insider knowledge you desperately need to receive a killer letter of recommendation.

   Dr. Desser teaches English at all student levels, from the frightened freshmeat of English 100 to experienced collegiettes working on their doctoral dissertations.

What is the professor looking for in the student?

   There are a variety of factors that can vary from professor to professor, but that can be narrowed down to 2 major aspects.

   Dr. Desser says, “The first thing I always look at is the quality of work being turned in.” It should be obvious. If you want a good letter, you need to have done well in the class. But it’s more than coming out with an A. You should consistently be turning in your best work. So if you never did the homework, but aced the exams, this professor isn’t the one you should be asking.

   The second aspect is how you contribute to creating a good “learning community” in the classroom.  This is less important as a freshman but as you move up through your education, it really matters. Dr. Desser explains a common pitfall of students. “They come into class and sit in the back of the room. They don’t contribute at all. They don’t speak to anyone, and they THINK the only that matters are the grades. As professors, we are watching the whole person. We are watching how you interact with the other students, how you interact with the professor. Do you take responsibility? Do you take risks? Do you contribute? All of those things and all of those expectations get higher as the grade levels go up.”. 

   Don’t get overwhelmed or discouraged, however, if you’re not the star student of the class. This isn’t absolutely crucial for getting a good letter, but at the undergraduate level, if you can make an effort to “contribute to the classroom as a whole,” it will definitely set you apart from the rest of the class, resulting in a better letter.

What does the student need to provide?

   A great, standout letter of recommendation creates “a portrait of the whole person.”  So it is your responsibility to provide any materials the professor will need to create this. “You know more about yourself than I do,” Dr. Desser explains. You should provide a slightly modified resume to include any and all relevant information about yourself. This includes: your GPA, any honors or awards, community service, interests, hobbies, talents, and any unusual circumstances you might have.  The professor will probably write about your self-discipline, sense of direction,  motivation , organization, ability to take direction, and ability to learn from criticism. You should provide any relevant information that you have about yourself that speaks to those things.  “The more information I have the better,” Dr. Desser says. Don’t be afraid to go all out. Better safe than sorry.

Time is everything.

   One of the biggest mistakes students make is to not give the professor enough time. You’re probably not the only one asking for a letter. Professors, just like students, have obligations outside of the classroom, so you should take that into consideration when deciding on a good time. You also need to provide a deadline for the letter. Dr. Desser believes 2-3 weeks time is probably the average for most professors, but if your chosen professor is involved in research or travels a lot, you should allow more time. 

   Another thing about time is to make sure you don’t wait too long to ask.  A good standard is no longer than a year after taking the class. You want to be fresh in the professor’s mind so they can speak more genuinely about who you are as a person and not just list off the information you wrote for them.

After the letter is written:

   As parents should have taught you, saying thank you is very important.  A professor took time and effort away from his or her life to write 400-500 words about how awesome you are and probably brought you one step closer to success. The least you can do is say thank you. A nice, hand-written thank you card is always nice. And while she says it’s not mandatory, Dr. Desser says a small gift, nothing large or extravagant, really goes along way.  Also, don’t forget to tell them you got into your first choice school or got the great internship. The professors, like all people, want to know they were of use and their efforts were justified. While all of this isn’t absolutely necessary, it’s a good professional courtesy and a habit you need to get used to.

Finish out the semester strong in your classes to leave a great last impression on your professors. You might be knocking on their office doors sooner than you think!