Getting Great Letters of Recommendation: What You Need to be Doing Right Now

In this article, we discuss why getting great letters of recommendation depends on how you perceive and interact with your professors. Specifically, the kinds of student behaviors that make professors eager to help students.

It’s easy to forget that your professors are people when you sit in front of them during a lecture. As with any authority figure, they seem remote because of the role the play in your life. In this case, they have control over your time (from class schedules, to exams and papers), and the all-important ability to judge effort and intellect, producing a grade. Add to this the fact that many professors have dedicated their lives to the pursuit of a specific and oftentimes narrow topic that may only interest you as a means to a different end, and the gap can seem unbridgeable. There you are, just looking to perform well and move on. There they are, with the power to aid you or stand in your way, but with obscure objectives. Not only can this cause stress while working towards an individual grade, but it can detrimentally affect the process of acquiring powerful recommendation letters for future study.

The truth, however, is that most professors teach for multiple reasons: partly because of a profound passion for the material under review, partly because they are inspired by the intellectual audacity of intelligent youth, and partly because they genuinely believe that a good education aids the development of an individual – whatever his or her ultimate career goals. Whether you are taking a class on Shakespeare, an astronomy survey, an introduction to economics, or learning a new language, chances are your professor cares as much about how your intellectual diligence will generally inform your future character as they will care about your investment in the particular topic at hand. They care about this because they themselves benefited from similar exposure to a breadth of ideas when they were starting out in their careers.

So, despite the illusion of distance and authority built into the system, the best way to get a convincing recommendation from a professor is to have the confidence to establish a personal relationship with them. This relationship can be based on enthusiasm for learning without too much concern over your ultimate interest in the material. Go to office hours. Talk about gratuitously interesting thoughts inspired in part by a lecture. Turn in that extra credit assignment. Ask questions in class. Go to the department-sponsored lectures and chat with your professors afterward. Your professors will be grateful for your participation, they will be fired up by your engagement, they will be interested in learning about you as a person, and perhaps intrigued to learn from your unique perspective as a non-specialist looking in at a field they have been a part of for decades.

These are the relationships that produce outstanding letters of recommendation. These relationships encourage the professor to invest in your future on your terms, to spend the extra time it takes to draft a compelling letter, to include the details that make it obvious that he or she is not writing a stock letter but truly took the time to get to know you. These are the relationships that result in a letter professing genuine regret at the loss of your contribution to the school and the department, which only tantalizes future institutions.

And, with any luck, these are the relationships that also become warm mentoring friendships that you can continue to draw on as you professionalize and develop over the course of your career and your life.

You can always talk to InGenius Prep for more information on how to get letters of recommendation for your college admission or your graduate school application.

About the Author


Joel Butterly, Co-founder and CEO of InGenius Prep, is an experienced admissions counselor and entrepreneur. Joel comes from a rich educational background—his immediate family alone has 14 Ivy League Degrees—from Harvard, Yale, Cornell, and Dartmouth.

Joel attended Dartmouth College, where he studied Government, Geography, and the Philosophy of Ethics. He was inducted early into Phi Beta Kappa, and graduated Summa Cum Laude. He graduated with a double major in Government and International Studies, and a minor in Ethical Philosophy.

After Dartmouth, Joel attended Yale Law School, where he served on the executive board of the Journal on Regulation, as well as the Law School’s entrepreneurship society.

Joel currently resides at Yale in New Haven, Connecticut. He lives with his fiance – Emily – who teaches and is receiving her PhD in Medieval History from Yale.