by Lakshmi Sadhu
University teaches you many wonderful things; from learning how to pull all-nighters to how to let go of toxic relationships (and everything in between), your time as an undergraduate student will be spent learning some of your first major life lessons as a young adult. However, amidst all those (sometimes harsh) life lessons just throwing themselves at you, you’ll find at the brink of your graduation there’s one very easy lesson that has been left in the dust. I’m talking about the etiquette of asking for recommendation letters. First-years will have probably not yet thought about it, and soon-to-be graduates will be able to empathise with this post. If you have no reason to ask for a reference letter anytime soon, you’re probably wondering what could be so hard about asking a professor for a recommendation.
For starters, unless you had mandatory group participation in every course you took, chances are you’ve probably never really spoken to your professors in their office or after class, apart from the odd assignment-related question. Unless of course, you’re one of those enthusiastic, overachieving student archetypes, students who visit every single professor during office hours and talk about everything from course-related material to their hopes and dreams, in which case hats off to you. I knew someone, an alumnus now, so keen on interacting with professors, that he would ask them out to coffee dates. Maybe that’s totally normal to you, but it definitely wasn’t for me, not back then anyway.
If I didn’t have to talk to the professor, then I didn’t talk to the professor. There wasn’t much profound communication being exchanged between me and instructors, apart from the bare minimum course-related queries. Of course, that all changed during a cognitive science and philosophy based course I took last semester, the professor of which is easily one of the most brilliant and compassionate human beings I’ve ever had the fortune of engaging with, in deep philosophical and spiritual discussions – but that’s besides the point of this post.
Naturally, when push came to shove, in terms of graduate applications, the horrific realisation dawned on me that my professors probably had no clue who I was. Sure, they knew my name and my academic performance, but absolutely nothing more substantive than that, at least not enough to write me a glowing reference letter. I feared my reference letter would look something like this:
To whom it may concern,
Lakshmi was a student in my class on Metaphysics, and scored an A- in the course. She spoke to me on exactly two occasions, regarding her essays. At least, I think that was her.
You should accept her into graduate school, if you want. (I don’t really care.)
I had also heard from several of my friends that professors sometimes refused reference letter requests from students, especially if they weren’t given enough time to write one, or if they felt like they didn’t know the student well enough to write a recommendation worth anything. Unfortunately for me, I was guilty on both accounts.
The first professor I contacted, I never heard back from (I’m still waiting, sir). The second professor flat out rejected me, on account of the fact that he couldn’t remember me. With two defeats under my belt, I contacted two other professors in trepidation.
My initial joy at their acceptance was quickly replaced by confusion at their subsequent question: “What do you want me to say?”
No one taught me the etiquette for modestly but blatantly praising yourself in front of your professors.
Jokes aside, turns out they didn’t want to hear, “I think I’m pretty fabulous” – not that I actually said that.“What do you want me to say?” is really just a cue for you to tell them about your personal and academic background, your passions and aspirations as a human being. They want to honestly hear about your strengths and weakness, and how you managed to supplement (or overcome) them. Seems pretty obvious now that I think about it, but it sure wasn’t at the beginning of this ordeal.
It doesn’t just end here though. Gaining approval for your recommendation is just the first step; following the request through to the end is another challenging aspect. While your graduate application is the first thing on your mind, it’s probably the last thing (if present at all) on your professor’s mind. Don’t forget to email him/her periodically as the deadline approaches, to remind them. It’s your responsibility to make sure that your professor sends it in, not theirs.
Of course, don’t manically email them – you don’t want them to regret ever saying yes. Once every two or three days (especially if the deadline is fast approaching) is appropriate. You may even find that some professors will go MIA a day before the deadline, or on the day of the actual deadline.
If they do go MIA all of a sudden, it is perfectly acceptable to call them on their departmental number, or email them every few hours! If possible, you should also visit them if they have regular, established office hours.
Overall, you WILL survive through grad applications, and reference letters. I did!