Each year, countless college students bombard their professors with requests for letters of recommendation. Oftentimes, however, these students aren’t prepared to ask for such letters. A faculty panel addressed this issue Wednesday afternoon by giving advice on how to properly prepare for graduate school and scholarship applications.
The Office of National Scholarships and Fellowship sponsored the panel of Jeff Becker, a professor and head of microbiology; Tom Burman, a professor and head of the Department of History; and Michael Handelsman, a humanities professor and the office's director.
The panel emphasized the importance of students getting to know their teachers, saying that it is difficult to write weighty letters of recommendation on unfamiliar students.
Burman specifically highlighted the importance of making connections with professors in the classroom. For him, making good grades isn’t enough; if students don’t make an effort to contribute in class, they won’t be remembered.
“This (the teacher writing the letter) should really be someone you’re connected with who knows you … be vocal in class,” he said.
Victoria Wheeler, a fifth-year senior in Spanish and world business, said the panel impressed upon her the importance of connecting with teachers.
“I haven’t been doing as much of that as I should be,” she said. “Being at this session makes me realize I really need to make an effort to connect with my professors at grad school.”
Wheeler has been accepted to graduate school and plans to pursue the Fulbright scholarship.
The panel also noted that many students tend to wait until the last minute to ask for letters of recommendation, advising that professors should be asked for letters at least a month ahead of time.
“If we’re trying to craft a letter that speaks to your specific uniqueness, it’s not something we do in 15 minutes,” Handelsman said.
Discussion on what exactly the teachers do need to know when writing letters of recommendation followed, and the panel suggested writing at most a page and including a few specific examples. Becker even advised including a negative comment; as a reviewer himself, he’s doubted the validity of some letters.
“When you get a perfect letter, it’s very difficult to really evaluate it,” he said.
The panel’s focus shifted to some resume-writing tips, and Becker said he would rather see three or four things that the student has done well than see a “padded resume.” They all warned against the popular technique, saying that some reviewers believe it implies students are overcompensating. Their advised rule was to maintain a rule of quality over quantity when it comes to listing achievements.
Burman added that while resumes should look appealing, students should be careful to not get too creative with the document's literal style.
“You should not go silly with special fonts … they’re looking for substance; they’re not looking for superficiality,” he said.