Actually needing letters of recommendation or professional references might seem like a long ways off right now, but you might need them for an internship, leadership position, or honor society. Even if you won’t need letters soon, it’s a good idea to start thinking about who you would chose and what they might say about you. You might end up asking someone you know now to write you a letter two years from now.
Who should you choose?
Choose people who know you well. I’ve had students ask me for letters just because I’m the dean when I’ve only met them once or twice. I can look up their transcripts and get information from their instructors, but these letters are never as good as the ones I’ve written for students that I know very well. Think about professors who have observed you in at least two different situations: your academic advisor who also had you in class, a professor who is also the advisor for a student organization to which you belong, or a professor with whom you’ve also done research. The letter of recommendation my undergraduate research advisor wrote for me was very detailed and memorable. (Yes, he gave me a copy.) He described me as shy and included the story of the time I asked him to help me with the demonstration for my speech class where I made liquid nitrogen ice cream.
If no one comes to mind, this is the time to get to know your professors and get involved so they will remember you. Go to their office hours, participate in service learning or other projects, definitely join the professional organization related to your field of study, or invite your professors to your athletic event, play, or recital (maybe that would be weird at a large university, but at my college, it’s an honor to be invited to these activities).
What should you do if your professors don’t know you well? At a large university, there might be hundreds of students in your class and your advisor might have a sea of advisees. If this is the case, and especially if it’s been a while since you’ve had contact with this person, when you ask them to write the letter, give them as much information about yourself as possible, including which classes you’ve taken from them and when, a copy of your resume, your application information and essay (where applicable), and a list of your interests and co-curricular activities. If possible, ask for the letter in person so your face might jog his or her memory. You might even have copies of graded papers or projects from class that you can send to them (keep this stuff!).
Choose people who you have impressed. I generally don’t write letters for students who have earned lower than a B in my course(s). You want to choose the professors who taught the classes where you did your very best work in a course that was challenging. I’ll also take this opportunity to remind you to always be professional – in class and when communicating with your professors. My students sometimes think it’s cool to begin e-mails to me with “Hey” or that it’s OK to drop the F-bomb in class. These occasions come to mind when I have to fill out the “conducts himself/herself in a professional manner” portion of a recommendation.
Choose people who represent multiple perspectives. When I applied to chemistry graduate school, I asked three of my chemistry professors to write letters of recommendation. Looking back, I don’t know if this was wise. I probably should have had a least one person who was not a chemist. Choose professors from different disciplines so they can speak to your skills in a variety of areas. If possible, you should ask at least one woman to write a letter for you. Women are more likely to be aware of the unconscious gender bias that can occur in letters of recommendation and will work to minimize this.
Choose at least one person who is trained in the field you wish to enter. Obviously you should include a professor who taught course(s) in your major, but you could additionally choose a mentor or internship supervisor outside of your school that can also speak to your potential to enter their field. This is one of the reasons that networking with people in your field and joining professional organizations now is so important. Speaking of networking, utilize networking sites like LinkedIn to keep in contact with potential letter writers. You never know if they will move to a different institution, retire, or if you might transfer. You might even choose to go back to school years after you graduate. I recently had one of the first students I had in class contact me for a letter of recommendation – 10 years later!
Good luck identifying the best people to speak to your skills and abilities!
Can you believe that Thanksgiving is next week! Hope to have some time to visit with you.