Obtaining Highly Convincing Reference Letters

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 stellarĀ  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!

Building Relationships that Lead to Strong Reference Letters

Achieving high marks is one critical way success is measured at university, but it’s not the only important factor. One of your other most important goals is making a positive impression on your professors (and instructors). Strong letters of reference are invaluable, especially if you’re hoping to attend graduate school or at least keep the possibility of grad school open.

You can’t expect a stellar reference from a professor unless you have impressed him or her with your maturity and drive. A reference letter is the professor’s way of giving you a personal stamp of approval, and this must be earned. No professor is going to vouch for you to their counterparts at other universities, some of whom may be their friends or future colleagues, unless you deserve it.

Building a strong academic relationship with a professor is one of the best ways to enhance your chance of a glowing reference. They need to have a good sense of the sort of student and person you are before they’ll feel comfortable advertising you to other programs.

It’s a good idea to take more than one class with potential referees. This gives professors more time to develop an awareness of your skills and commitment. If there’s no chance to take a second or third class with a prof, consider joining an academic club they oversee, attending events they organize, or asking if they have volunteer research opportunities available. The better they know you, the better your chance of a reference.

It’s also a great idea to drop in on a professor’s office hours and ask a question or two. I suggest doing this at least once or twice every term with every professor, and perhaps once or twice more if you are hoping they will give you a reference. Attending office hours demonstrates your willingness to take extra time to do well in a class. It’s also a perfect opportunity for professors to connect your name with your face. When you chat with your profs, you’re also encouraging a psychological process called the “mere exposure effect.” Put simply, we tend to like things and people more the more we encounter them.

Of course, finding opportunities to make an impression on a prof only makes sense if you’re working hard to make it a good impression. You want them to perceive you as a hard-working, eager, motivated, mature student. This means you need to:

1] Attend all of their classes.

2] Arrive on time for class.

3] Be prepared for class. Read everything they assign and take notes that include your thoughts on the material. That way you’ll be ready to ask meaningful questions and engage effectively in class discussions. It’s also a good idea to read at least a little of the optional reading. Optional reading is truly optional, but showing you’ve reading some of it alerts a prof to the energy you’re putting into class.

4] Never do the “bare minimum.” Make sure your assignments highlight your research, communication and critical thinking skills. Don’t submit anything until it demonstrates your abilities fully. Professors know when students are putting in a solid effort and when they’re not, and you know which side of that spectrum you need to be on if you’re hoping for a reference.

5] Always be respectful. This means NEVER talk in class, NEVER look at your cellphone, and NEVER do anything on your computer except for taking class notes. Professors notice these things and they consider them rude and disrespectful. How do you feel about people who’ve disrespected you? You’re not likely to want to use your valuable time to write a letter saying how great they are, are you?

And by the way, if you think your masterful acting abilities will convince your prof that you’re diligently recording notes on your laptop when you’re really buying shoes on Amazon, you’re wrong. It’s totally easy to know when people are following the lecture and when they’re not. If you don’t believe me, try it. Stand at the front of class one day and see just how obvious it is when someone isn’t paying attention.

6] Demonstrate your brilliance and passion. Speak up, share your ideas and push your thinking on every topic to the highest level possible. And if you don’t know something important to the discussion, learn it.

Following all of these strategies doesn’t guarantee you a set of amazing reference letters, but it will give you your best chance of securing the references you need to make your applications competitive.