To Whom It May Concern

I am writing this letter in support of J. Randomstudent’s application to your graduate or professional program. I have known J. since the fall of 20__, when he was a student in my introductory physics class.

From the very first day of that course, J. was a constant presence on my grade roster. I assume he came to class as well, as I have quiz and homework grades for him, though I do not have any specific recollection of him participating in class.

I have had many “B” students in my years as a professor, but I do not think it is an exaggeration to say that J. Randomstudent was the most emphatic “B” I have had in my career. Many “B” students will alternate between “A” and “C” work over the course of the semester, but J. was the very model of consistency. Every test, every paper, every assignment was completed in full with 80% effort, and received a “B” grade. He has also demonstrated competence at experimental science, as shown by the six “B” grades he received in the laboratory portion of the course.

On a personal level, I am sure that J. gets along all right with other students, as I do not remember him causing any trouble either in class or as part of his lab group. I have spoken with him on at least one occasion, when he came to my office to ask me to write this letter, and he seemed like a perfectly nice person.

In conclusion, then, I am writing this letter as a reference for J. Randomstudent. Should you choose to admit him to your graduate or professional program, I’m sure he’ll do just fine.

Thanks for your time,
Chad Orzel
Associate Professor of Physics

We’re entering Recommendation Season, that time of year when students considering graduate school seek out faculty members to write letters of recommendation to go with their applications, both for graduate school and for fellowships and awards. It hits a little earlier here, as today is the last day of finals for the Fall term, and classes won’t resume until January, so students need to request letters now for deadlines in early January, but in the next month or two, faculty all over the nation will be struggling to find ways to put off writing reference letters for students in their classes.

I’ve gotten three requests already, and I’m happy to say that none of them will give me any trouble at all, as far as the content goes. I’m a reflexive procrastinator, so I’ll still put them off, but all three are students I know well, and I’m more than happy to give them enthusiastic recommendations.

If you’re a student thinking about graduate school, though, consider this post a friendly reminder: Don’t be J. Randomstudent. You don’t need to run an A+ average in every class– God knows, I didn’t when I was a student– but you do need to do something to stand out. These letters ask faculty to comment on the academic ability, research potential, and personal qualities of the candidates, so it’s imperative that you have faculty members who can comment on those things (primarily the first two).

You don’t have to suck up to every faculty member you meet, but make sure that there are at least a few professors who know you well. A colleague in the social sciences said once that he tells students to make sure that they get to know at least one of their professors each term, which will give them 10-12 potential recommenders by the time senior year rolls around.

What do you need to do to get good letters? Make sure that you give your best effort in classes in your major. Participate in class discussions. Go to office hours and ask questions if you have them. Take advantage of any undergraduate research opportunities that come your way, and if you get taken on to a research project, treat it as a real job, not some summer lark: show up on time, do your work to the best of your ability, and try to show a little initiative.

Getting good grades helps, but it’s not enough. I’ve given A’s to students that I couldn’t begin to write a good letter for– they were quiet in class, did their work, got their good grades, and went away without a word. I’ve given B+’s to students that I could write great letters for, because they asked and answered questions in class, came to office hours to get help, and gave me a solid idea of their strengths and weaknesses. I can write a letter for a student like that more easily than I can for a student who coasted through the class on native ability, and didn’t make much of an impression beyond that.

If you’e a superstar A+ student, of course, the letters aren’t going to make a huge difference in your chances of getting into grad school. Of course, if you’re that sort of student, you’re probably not reading this blog… If you’re below that top few percent, though, the letters do make a difference, so make sure you make a positive impression on at least a few of your professors, at some point in your career.