Here are a couple of ways, at least, to improve your chances of getting a positive graduate school reference, followed by one or two less good ways:
Scenario: for whatever reason, you’ve been out of touch with your college/university and the professor who you think might write a good letter for you. Seriously, it’s been several years.
- Write to Professor X. Be cordial; recall the good old days of [class or classes you took with X]. Tell Prof. X about your plans and ask politely if he or she would be willing to serve as a reference.
- In the same letter or e-mail, tell Prof. X what you’ve been doing since you left ye olde alma mater, whether it is teaching, inventing Post-Its, or sharing the Gospel in Peru. Prof. X would really like to be able to say something about you beyond “I had Josie Schmoe in Advanced Basketweaving five years ago and she was fab” (not that Prof. X would say it that way, because she really wants you to succeed).
- This should be #1: Keep your best college papers. Offer to send copies of appropriate ones to Prof. X, who now has a job at a different university and couldn’t access your files even if they still existed. Assuming Prof. X has agreed to serve as one of your references, he can now write with complete sincerity, “Josie Schmoe wrote the best undergraduate essay on Joyce’s Ulysses that I have ever seen” or whatever it was.
- Send Prof. X complete information on all the graduate schools where you are applying, including addresses or websites where references must be submitted, and deadlines. Include envelopes addressed to graduate schools that require printed letters; stamps are optional, but impressive. Yes, of course Prof. X’s department should provide stationery and postage, but doing so yourself demonstrates your self-reliance and thoughtfulness.
- At least one e-mail reminder as deadlines near is OK if any references have not arrived. Prof. X is as busy and/or absent-minded as the next person, as seriously as he takes his responsibilities, and would feel worse if your recommendation didn’t get in on time.
- After all your applications are in, including a glowing recommendation from Prof. X, send Professor X a handwritten thank-you note. To completely bowl Professor X over, tuck a coffeeshop gift card inside.
Some ways to get less than stellar grad school recommendations, if any:
- Contact Prof. X, who was your first-year comp. instructor (you got a C), when you are a senior, and say, “Hey! I need a reference for medical school. Can you help?” Since you were a forgettable student in that class, Prof. X has forgotten you and has no reason to recommend you, especially when you address her in such a casual way. I’d say she shouldn’t agree to write the reference, but if she agrees to do so, it won’t be very enthusiastic unless you go on to show her that you’ve become a different person in the past four years.
- Run into Prof. X’s office and say, “Help! My other reference fell through and the deadline is tomorrow! Help!” Variation: panicky e-mail message. If you are an outstanding student, Prof. X already knows and likes you well, and the stars align, this last-minute approach may work out, but it’s risky.
- You have a good relationship with Prof. X and he agrees to write your reference letters well in advance of the deadlines, but after that you just go blithely about your life and forget it, assuming he’ll do everything without any further effort from you. Did you give him all the information about the school(s)? Addressed envelopes (if needed)? Deadlines? Reminders?
I’m probably not the only person ever to write on this subject, but I thought it might be useful. To the former students who inspired this post & sent a thank-you note: Thank you.