The first question one might ask is:
“Why do I need a letter of recommendation?”
When you get out of college, or even sooner if you look for an internship or a summer job, you might be asked by employers or graduate schools to provide a letter of recommendation. Such letters are most often written by a professor at your school, in order to attest to your interest, knowledge and skills.
The next question you might have is:
“How will a professor know enough about me to write such a letter?”
Indeed, if you only attended lectures, your professor might not know much about you, even if you participated in class once in a while. For a professor to know of your interests and passions, and of your interpersonal skills, you need to have talked to them a few times, or even better, to have a relationship with them. Also, you might think it would be enough, for them to know your analytical and reasoning skills, that you took their exams. However, someone’s final rarely stands out from someone else’s, especially when there’s lots to be graded in a short amount of time. For all these reasons, it would be beneficial for you to go to office hours, to talk to the professor after class, basically to get into conversations. You’ll learn more from them and about them (they might have valuable advice — more on that later), and so will they about you. Of course you probably only want to do this with a particular course (or courses) which especially interests you, and might be related to what you want to do later. Or with a particular professor whom you find especially engaging or interesting. Hopefully you like BOTH the course and the professor! Don’t forget you can invite your professor to eat with you: at any time at your dining hall, or during the Freshman faculty dinner or your house’s faculty dinner, or with the Classroom to Table program. Don’t hesitate to invite along some of your classmates or friends to that dinner! And as I’m sure you know, professors tend to be busy, so ask in advance.
“OK, I have a relationship with one of my professors. Now what do I do?”
Before you even ask for that recommendation letter, you might actually be interested in what your professor knows about this particular job, internship or program you are applying to! You should feel free to ask them questions not just about the course you are taking with them, but about other courses to take, job opportunities in that field or related ones, internships, graduate school programs, etc. Ask them about their school and career path, about other jobs they might have had, what it’s like to be a professor, etc. Depending on how close you are, you might even ask about such things as having a family, taking time off from school or taking a gap year, etc. Whatever is relevant to you!
“OK, now I really need that recommendation letter. What do I do?”
Ask for that recommendation letter! And don’t wait until a week before the deadline, or until a semester after you last talked to your professor. If you want the professor to be able to write you a good (if not great!) recommendation letter, they will probably need the following things from you:
- A short description of the job/internship/program you are applying to. - A few reasons why you think you would be a great candidate, including some reasons that the professor can actually testify to (the knowledge or skills you acquired in the class, your interests, your interpersonal skills they might have noticed when they met you, the grit you showed in overcoming a low grade early on, etc). Don’t hesitate to actually point out the ones you believe the professor can specifically address, or remind the professor of specific things they might know about you. - Details on the person to address the letter to, or the person in charge of the program, of the hiring, etc (name, position, address). - The deadline to submit the materials, and how to do so. - Some basic info about you that might be relevant. You might want to include that in case you professor does not know or forgot (for example, which year you are in, your concentration, your prior experience). - If you also have a cover letter, CV, letter of intent, or other material like this, it might be helpful to send that to your professor as well. You can mention it and ask whether they would like to receive it.
That’s a lot of things! In your first ask for the letter, you don’t need to (and probably shouldn’t) include all of this. Simply describe the program you are applying to in a sentence or two, and add another sentence or two as to why this professor could give you a great reference letter. Mention the deadline, and ask whether they can do it. When they reply in the affirmative, they might ask for more details themselves, or you can simply provide them with the above information then.
“Should I remind the professor once they have agreed?”
YES! Absolutely! Some might ask you to remind them a week or a few days before. If the professor does not say anything, reminding them a week before and then two days before might be a good idea, but that’s just my own preference. Don’t let your application go down the drain because your professor forgot, or got the date wrong on their calendar, etc.
“Should I write a thank-you note? Give a gift?”
Yes for the note, no for the gift! Depends on the faculty of course, but a gift feels a little too close to a bribe for me. It is nice though if you write a thank-you note not long after you know they have submitted the letter. And when you hear back from the job or program you applied to, whether in the positive or negative, you may certainly send another note to your professor, with the news. The professor might have asked you specifically to let them know how things go and to stay in touch, or not. It’s up to you to judge what to do at this point.
“Should I stay in touch with the professor after the class is over, or after I’ve graduated?”
Again, it’s up to you to make that call. Some professors might invite you to stay in touch or visit when you’re back in town. Or you might have more questions for them, or need more advice from them. Either way, if the relationship is still good for you, by all means maintain it, like any other relationship!