Rec Letters Count: Tips from Two Pros

Dreaming of studying abroad in Barcelona next summer, or need help with the plane ticket to present your work at a national conference? The Honors College can help. We give out $500,000 – $1 million in grants each year, and the place to start in creating a competitive application is securing strong letters of recommendation from faculty members.

For tips on these all-important letters, we turned to two pros who write, and read, a lot of them. Kathleen Condray, head of the German program and former Sturgis fellow, has written an estimated 750 letters of rec since returning to campus in ’99; she shares some general tips on requesting letters below. Carol Gattis, associate dean of the Honors College, is the chief reviewer of Honors College grants and reads more than 800 letters every year; she provides specific advice for freshmen and sophomores, and for juniors and seniors as well.

And take note: the first deadline for study abroad grant applications is Sept. 11, 2013!

Woman posed in front of bookshelves.

Kathleen Condray, a former Sturgis fellow and head of the German program, has written an estimated 750 letters since returning to campus.

General Tips for Letters of Recommendation

1. Ask a professor who knows you! Getting to know a professor well enough so that he/she can write for you will require extra effort. Stay after class or go to office hours to ask (intelligent) questions about the subject at hand. (Don’t go hang out in office hours to say: “SO, what did you do this summer? Did you see Iron Man III? That was righteous.” As righteous as Iron Man III was, people are busy, and office hours are designed to discuss class content or matters pertaining to the field.)

Attend extracurricular events (public lectures, mixers) that the department organizes. In a non-obnoxious way, make your face well-known and your name associated with someone who goes the extra mile. You should also use these relationships to get to know about other opportunities in your field and whether your chosen career path is a good fit for you.

2. It is never too early to start on the steps in tip #1 above. Considering in January before you graduate which biology professors might write you letters for medical school is TOO LATE.

3. Consider which professors to ask for what grants, fellowships and graduate programs. If you are applying for a major award in which the only important qualification that counts is your ability in scientific research, don’t ask a literature professor to write for you, even if you have a particularly good relationship with that person. By the same token, don’t ask someone who is familiar with your intimate knowledge of the the drosophila to write a letter for your teaching Fulbright overseas, in which a recommender is asked about your foreign language skills and ability to navigate cultures abroad. The higher the stakes, the more carefully your letter writer’s field should match the field of opportunity.

4. Consider asking for letters from professors in your minor and/or second major, particularly if it’s a small department. In addition to added knowledge and skills on your résumé and additional opportunities for internships, this gives you another set of professors who really have the chance to get to know their students and talk about them in great detail in letters of recommendation. Every year I write around 70 letters of recommendation for students who are studying German as a major or minor in addition to science, history, international relations, business, etc. For general internships or fellowships (i.e. not the specific high-stakes ones mentioned in tip #3 above), my letter is often the third letter of rec that proves that the candidate is a well-rounded individual.

5. All of your professors’ time is valuable. Don’t EVER say to a professor: “Oh, well I was going to ask Prof. X to write a letter, but he seems so busy.” There is not a single professor at this institution who is not busy, and writing letters of rec is technically not even included in the job description.

6. You are ALWAYS on a job interview with your professors. If you’re sitting in the front row of a poli sci class talking about how you skipped a calculus class because of a kegger, your poli sci professor is not going to be impressed favorably. Think about what this person can write for you in the future. Are you always late to class? Miss turning in assignments? Do poorly on exams despite your obvious intelligence, because you simply can’t be bothered with this class? Then what do you expect the professor to be able to write for you in a letter of rec? Be a model citizen.

7. DO. SOMETHING. Start a club if you see a need for one, or take on leadership roles in an existing club. However, do not buy into this idea popular among undergraduates that low grades are okay if you are super involved in extracurriculars. Especially for honors students, graduate schools and employers want to see that you can excel BOTH in course work AND in extracurricular learning. Because guess what? In real life, adults don’t get to decide if they’re going to be good workers, productive members of society, OR effective parents (if they choose that route). Showing a mastery of balance early is invaluable.

8. Ask the professor if he/she can write a strong letter of rec. A lukewarm letter can be interpreted as a negative one.

9. When asking for a letter, you should include the following:

a. Two weeks’ notice. I have had to turn down students who ask me for letters a day or two before a deadline, since I am already writing eight other letters due by that deadline for students who asked me two weeks in advance.

b. A description of the grant/scholarship/fellowship/award/graduate program/job you are applying for so that your professor knows which of your many talents to emphasize.

c. A current version of your résumé. If you haven’t updated yours since high school, OH MY GOODNESS, visit the Career Development Center website right now. Their OptimalResume builder is free, easy to use and includes lots of examples. Then, you can make an appointment for a one-on-one meeting at the center to review the new draft of your résumé, if need be.

d. The ADDRESS and DEADLINE for submission. On one occasion, I finished a letter at 2:00 in the morning for someone before a deadline and discovered that the student had neglected to include the e-mail address to which the letter had to be sent.

8. A thank you note is a good idea as a follow-up, but resist the urge to give anything material. Professors are happy to write excellent letters for well-deserving students.

9. Occasionally some folks will have to turn you down because they already have too much work on their plates. This is why you should have multiple professors who would consider writing for you. Don’t take it personally!

Carol Gattis, associate dean of the Honors College, is the chief reviewer for Honors College grants and reads more than 800 letters every year.

Carol Gattis, associate dean of the Honors College, is the chief reviewer for Honors College grants and reads more than 800 letters every year.

Tips for Freshmen & Sophomores …

1. NOW is the time to begin building relationships with professors (See no. 1, above) and to get involved in meaningful activities outside of class (see no. 7, above). These are the building blocks you need for winning grants and awards later on, and ultimately, for gaining admission to good graduate schools and/or landing your first job.

2. You CAN get a strong letter even if you haven’t known a professor for several years. The best thing to do is sit front row center in your classes, where the professor can see you. Many professors will come in, set up for the lecture, then chat with the students in the first three rows. It’s an easy way to get to know a faculty member in a large class. And professors will know your face and name when you go to visit during office hours.

3. As a freshman or sophomore, you’ve had fewer courses, so this gives you more latitude in choosing professors from any of your classes. A sophomore applying for a grant should include a letter of rec from a faculty member in his or her major, though.

4. Don’t ask for letters of rec from your minister, parent, or a faculty member who’s a long-time family friend but has never had you in class. For Honors College grant applications, faculty members must write your rec letters. A letter from the graduate student in your lab or a family friend will immediately disqualify your application; that’s a lot of work down the tubes!

5. Students who wait until the last minute will not impress faculty members. Younger students, in particular, tend to see letters of rec as an afterthought, and it needs to be the first thing you think about when you decide to apply for a grant.

6. Consider applying for a study abroad grant early in your academic career. As you progress in many disciplines, it can be advantageous to take summer internships, so the time to study abroad is now! Even freshman can apply for a study abroad grant – many do. You’ll need to take six hours of honors courses your first semester and apply for the second round of grants, typically in late November, when professors have gotten a chance to know you.

… and Juniors and Seniors

1. You’ve been on campus longer, so your letters will be held to a higher standard – think freshman and sophomore letters on steroids. Faculty recommenders should know you well, and you should have a strong GPA and robust résumé with meaningful extracurricular activities.

2. At this point, it’s important to have letters of recommendation from professors in your major, preferably your faculty mentor. Also consider the nature of the award or grant you are applying for, then select a recommender whose field is a good match to the opportunity at hand.

In closing, we return to Dr. Condray, who encourages you to “apply for anything and everything that sounds intriguing and for which you are qualified. Don’t say: ‘Oh, I probably won’t get it.’ If you don’t apply, you definitely won’t get it, and SOMEONE is going to be chosen. Your professors want it to be you.”


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