While these can definitely make or break your application, most people won’t rank them high on their application to-do list because preparations for your letters of recommendation start far before you pop the question to a potential recommender. Asking for letters of recommendation is the final step in a long process of networking.
The best recommendations will come from professors who know you and who truly support you in your higher-education quest, so while you want them to know you and your interests, it is also to your advantage to get to know them. Are they willing to take the time to give you thoughtful advice? Do they share your interests? What testimony could they offer of your academic ability?
Here are 10 things to do before you ask professors for a recommendations. Incidentally, these also won’t hurt your performance in class, either!
1. Go to their office hours.
2. Stay engaged in their class and make an effort to never be absent.
3. Ask their advice on how to improve your papers even if you are confident you’ll get an A.
4. Make sure you receive feedback from them beyond a letter grade, especially if it is not an advanced class.
5. Involve them in your decision process from “I’m thinking about it” stage to the “I’m ready to apply” stage.
6. Read something written by your professors. If appropriate, ask them about it.
7. Don’t dodge the question: “Do you think graduate school is right for me?” – ask it outright and be willing to accept the answer.
8. Try to get a research position with them or work with them more closely in an independent study.
9. Seek advice on which programs to apply to – and people they know in the field who you might want to work with.
10. Here’s an obvious but important one: always put a good face forward. Complaining about a grade or constantly asking for extensions are things you want to avoid at all costs.
Some of these may seem obvious, but you would be surprised to hear some of the wacky stories people tell about asking for recommendations. I knew someone who once asked a professor who had accused her of academic dishonesty for a recommendation. Really, what? Even if you have stellar grades, that does not mean that you made strong connections with professors. In the end, GPA alone is not enough to get you into graduate school if you have lackluster recommendations.
At best, your recommenders will push for you to get into certain schools where they know the faculty (I honestly believe this helped me get in to my program).