It’s important to understand that good grades and intelligence are only part of the achievements highlighted in the most convincing reference letters. The ideal reference letter also provides a clear picture of the student’s (or job applicant’s) other abilities. Strong references allow the reader to imagine vividly what it’s like to have the student, or referee, in the classroom or workplace.
In his book, Intelligence and How to Get It, social psychologist Richard E. Nisbett explains that:
…above a certain level of intelligence, most employers do not seem to be after still more of it. Instead, they claim that they’re after strong work ethic, reliability, self-discipline, perseverance, responsibility, communication skills, teamwork ability, and adaptability to change.
I would add creativity and leadership to the list.
The bottom line is that if you hope to obtain reference letters that attract employers and admissions committees, you need to work hard to develop a comprehensive range of skills that reaches beyond the core of intelligence. And developing these skills is only part of your goal. You must also clearly demonstrate them to your professors and instructors.
This means that you must showcase your enthusiastic participation, ask insightful questions, and help motivate your peers during group work. Just being in class every day and doing well on your tests and papers doesn’t guarantee you excellent reference letters. Intelligence and hard thinking work are absolutely vital, but it takes more to become the type of student who receives stellar references that open the doors to great jobs and university programs.
The good news is that with some focused effort you can quickly make impressive changes to how professors perceive you. One great strategy is making sure to ask one or two questions every class. And raise your hand to volunteer answers when the instructor asks the whole class a question. Make sure you’re not the team member slumped wordlessly onto the table while everyone else shares ideas. And if you’re given twenty minutes for an exercise, put all your energy into it for twenty minutes. If you work on the exercise for twelve minutes and then browse around on your cellphone, you’re displaying the exact opposite of the qualities you need to impress reference writers.
Don’t let the range of important skills in Nisbett’s quotation above overwhelm you. Remember that you CAN gain all of those skills and qualities, and all it takes is working on it a little bit every day. Then when you’re ready to ask for references, you’ll have professors who are eager to tell the world about your achievements!