Being a Student: Letters

Bryan Bibb’s recent post on “How to Argue with Your Biblical Studies Teacher” has me reflecting on that hatful of things I’d like my students to know about being a student. Expect occasional posts on the subject, beginning today with “letters of reference.”

Imagine it’s the first day of the first year of your course of study. Besides everything else on your plate, take a moment to focus your gaze on that figure at the front of the room. Think: “I will be asking this person for a letter of reference.” It may be for admission to a degree program, or for a scholarship or fellowship, or it may be for the thing you don’t know yet you’ll need. That is, it will involve money and opportunities: can you hear me now?

Advance preparation:

  • Don’t be a wallflower, even a high-performing wallflower. Come to class with genuine questions that engage the subject matter. Check in with the prof before or after class occasionally. Sign up for office hours. If you are self-conscious, do this enough that you can relax and be yourself: after all, you are the self that she will be supposed to be writing about.
  • Do what you can to perform well. Do you devote two hours outside of classroom on the course for every hour inside the classroom? More on “performing highly” in a later post, but for now: if you follow that 2:1 formula and do not get the results you want, check in with the prof about tips on how to spend that time.
  • Get advance permission: “Would it be possible for me to ask you for a letter of reference in the future?” This translates to, “Don’t forget about me while two or three more waves of incoming students crash over your bow in the next year or two.”
  • Cultivate more than one professor. When you need a letter, any one prof might be out of commission: What if she has been denied tenure and left; or had a family emergency; or been carried off by a twister?

Getting the letter:

  • Give your prof a month’s notice if at all possible. For one thing, she’s probably over-booked already with responsibilities that are out of her control. For another, her writing practices may include multiple sittings with periods of “percolation” in between.
  • Be ready to offer a portfolio. Besides any official instructions for the letter, I like this to include 1) the graded copies of everything you have written for her; 2) copies of any personal statement and cover letter that you are sending to the approving institution; 3) a URL for the approving institution. The point of this is to help the prof write a personal and on-target letter rapidly. You win because it’s the best letter it can be; she wins because it takes as little of her time as possible.

Think on the difference. In one scenario, the prof is unhappy to find herself rushed, to fill a page about a student she doesn’t remember well, and whose records show sub-optimal performance. In another scenario, the prof is grateful to have time to woolgather, concerning a student with whom she has a relationship, producing a letter that recalls detailed and individual accomplishments.

All of these steps are simple to do (even the one on “2:1” homework: in the long haul, “short cuts make long delays”).* However, none of them can be made up later if missed.

Remember that profs want to write good letters: we need students in the chairs, and when the “housekeeping” aspects of your life are going well, you hypothetically are better positioned to focus on our coursework and do well. Take care of your end, and we’ll do our part to help you reap some benefit.

* Peregrin Took to Frodo Baggins, Chapter Four of Fellowship of the Ring (J.R.R. Tolkein).

One Response

  1. I’m looking forward to this series. This is a great start.

    Some professors (and students know who they are) can benefit from a reminder a few days in advance. I don’t mind a student giving me a nicely worded, polite reminder not to screw up their grad school application. Not everyone needs it, but it can’t hurt as long as the student isn’t rude about it.

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