At some point in virtually every student’s time at Trinity, you will need a letter of recommendation. It may be for study abroad, an internship, fellowship, job, graduate school, or for some other entirely different opportunity. While a strong recommendation on your behalf will probably not be determinative, it will definitely strengthen your case for securing your goals or opportunities.
As a professor involved with the pre-law advisory committee for the last seventeen years, I have ample experience writing letters of recommendations, which go beyond those for law school. On average, I write approximately thirty letters of recommendations per year. I thought it might be useful to share some tips for students seeking a recommendation. One caveat: I am certainly only one professor. There are about 240 other eccentric Ph.D.’s on campus that may have entirely different ideas on this issue.
In this column, I will focus on how you should ask for a letter of recommendation. In my second February column, I will explain what I want from you when writing your letter and why.
When asking for a letter of recommendation, it seems so simple. You visit a professor during her office hours or shoot a quick email and ask, “Can you write me a recommendation?” I think this is a start, but you need to be more precise in how you ask the question. Instead, I would ask: “Can you write me a strong recommendation by a certain date?” Of course, a professor can write you a recommendation even if you did not do your best work in her class, but is that really the type of recommendation you want? If you get at least a B in my class, work hard (e.g., by coming prepared to class and perusing the assigned readings/literature), pay attention in class, conduct yourself in a professional manner (e.g., not texting or checking your social media accounts), and are not chronically late or absent, I am generally glad to write a strong letter. This list is neither exhaustive nor rigid. For example, if you do poorly in an earlier class but subsequently show marked improvement, I still would be glad to write that recommendation. Implicit in this discussion is that you do not want me to write a recommendation if you have not had an entire class with me. The person reading my recommendation would probably not take my letter seriously if I have only known you for a couple of months. If I have known you for a longer period of time and you have taken numerous classes with me, however, I have more information to construct a better letter.
Equally important, you want to give the professor enough time to write that strong letter. I like a minimum of two weeks (but prefer a month) prior to writing a letter of recommendation. Given that I have other letters to write, teaching and grading, committee work, scholarly demands, and other responsibilities, you want me to be in the best state of mind possible when I write your letter of recommendation. When I write that letter, I try to construct the strongest argument on your behalf to get what you are seeking. It is my time to brag about your contributions, qualities (intellectual and personal), character, and the university that you attend.
Hopefully, you find this information useful. My second column will focus on what I seek from you when writing a letter of recommendation and why.
John Hermann is an associate professor in the political science department.