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Sunday, March 3, 2024

The Philosophy of Education: Rec. Letters

Most of us will need recommendation letters at some point in our careers, often upon graduation. How do you plan to get them, and who do you plan to ask?

Recommendation letters primarily show your character. They should be as if introducing a friend by detailing a long-term positive relationship. As a result, someone who does not know you well cannot write an honest letter. For example, if you got an A in a class and perhaps came to office hours once or twice, how can that professor honestly assess your character? We must first plant the seed by spending time with the person before reaping the letter.

While getting an A does not entitle you to a recommendation letter, it is a good starting point for getting to know a professor. For example, if you just got an A and greatly enjoyed the subject, and if the professor has a lab, why not ask to join it? The worst that could happen is to be rejected, which is exactly the same result as if you did not ask.

However, many students have not cultivated relationships with professors or employers during their college years. Thus, upon beginning their application to a graduate or professional school, they realize they need letters and thus go to all of their old professors, who do not remember them after several years.

To get a letter from a professor who does not remember them, many students introduce themselves with their grade in the professor’s class. Then, they flatter the professor. Afterwards, they ask for the letter — it’s like a business transaction, not a relationship. Here is an example of this trope, from a real student, provided by a UC Davis professor:

“My name is […]. I took your Organic Chemistry A Class in Spring of 2011. I received an A+ in that class. You were among the best professors I had at UC Davis. […] You are a very inspiring teacher, and I was honored to be one of your students […] I know it has been a while, but I need letters from my professors, and you were among the first people I thought of. Please let me know if you are willing to write me a letter.”

Then, whether or not they get the letter, they never come back. Many professors, if asked this way, will ask, “Are you sure you want me to write a recommendation letter for you?” This is a sure sign that the professor knows that he or she cannot write a letter that will help. If pressed, many professors will write the letter because they do not want to offend the student. They are worried that telling the truth — that they do not remember the student and thus cannot write a recommendation letter — would embarrass the student. However, these are not real recommendation letters.

Even if we get letters this way, it will definitely not help and instead likely hurt us. As the professor does not know us, he or she cannot write honestly about our character or experiences with us and so must focus superficially. However, applications require three recommendation letters. If all three of them are fabricated, do you think they will present a deep, coherent picture of your character?

Police use the same trick: they ask witnesses or suspects for their stories separately. If those stories do not agree beyond superficial details, likely all or most of them are lying. Similarly, any admissions board receiving fabricated letters will immediately see it and probably reject you.

For a professor to write an honest letter, he or she must know you well as a person. For example, if you worked or volunteered, such as in a research lab or a coffee shop, your boss would likely know your character well. That person would write about specific experiences with you that show your character, which are much more powerful than generic statements like “He is trustworthy and hard-working.” In addition, that work experience would appear elsewhere on your application, showing that this person actually knew you.

To get jobs or research opportunities, you must be bold. For example, if you want a job, whenever you see a “Help Wanted” or similar sign, apply for the job! Don’t be shy or afraid of asking people for what you want or you will never get it. Even if you don’t get the job, you likely learned something from the attempt and can try again for another job.

If you cultivate positive relationships with people of higher standing, getting recommendation letters, a critical part of applications, will be easy. In fact, those people will often tell you that they would be pleased to write you a recommendation letter whenever you need one without you asking first. This enthusiasm will be obvious in the letters, making them extremely powerful. However, we must make the effort; professors and employers will not come to us.


To share your experiences with recommendation letters, contact WILL CONNER at wrconner@ucdavis.edu.



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