So, you’re applying for an internship next semester and it’s time to get those letters of recommendation to send to your prospective employer. Go ask the professor whose class you’re doing the best in, right? Well, not necessarily.
“Just because you have a good grade in a class, doesn’t necessarily mean the professor particularly 'likes you' or knows you well enough to write you a recommendation letter,” said Mariella Mecozzi, career center senior assistant director and supervisor at the University of Michigan’s Reference Letter Service. She said students should instead go to a professor who knows them well and has high esteem for them to prevent the risk of receiving a generic recommendation letter.
“Students need to make themselves noticeable to a professor they would like a recommendation from so the professor can speak more specifically about their academic performance,” she added. Going to office hours, participating in class or taking part in extra projects are all ways to stand out and let the professor know more about you, Mecozzi said.
However, this is much easier said than done. On large college campuses it may be hard for you to stand out in your 500-person lecture where the professor usually refers to you by the color shirt you’re wearing. Andrea Lowe, coordinator of advising at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s College of Letters and Science’s career services, suggests establishing a working relationship with the professor from the beginning of the year. “Taking the initiative to introduce yourself to your professor and follow up with him throughout the year really helps you establish a good relationship,” Lowe said. She added this is especially important for freshmen and sophomore students in large institutions who are taking mostly core classes that could seat a few hundred students.
Tamara Dowling, owner and senior writer of seekingsuccess.com, which provides career support services, suggests an alternative for larger classes; seeking out recommendations from teaching assistants if you feel the class is too large to get to know the professor. “Teaching assistants have a better opportunity to get to know you and your skills because they usually see you in smaller discussion classes,” she said.
The best time to use recommendation letters from professors is when applying to advanced education like medical or law school, said Karen Lawton, director of admissions for the University of Massachusetts’ medical school. “A recommendation letter from a professor is necessary to give a comprehensive assessment of what the student’s academic performance has been and their potential of succeeding in the program they’re applying to,” Lawton said. She added that this type of recommendation letter is crucial because it is provides a prediction of how successful the student will be.
Although recommendation letters from professors are important, there are other options you can explore. “Most employers want recommendations that would show the student’s past work performance, so if you’re working for an organization or doing volunteer work, you should definitely contact those supervisors,” said Susan Highsmith, senior human resources manager at JEVS Human Services. Recommendation letters from supervisors also help employers see how well you work with others, Highsmith added.
Recommendations from supervisors are especially important because they provide a well-rounded picture of you and your skills outside the classroom. Lowe, who used to be a city government job recruiter in the Seattle area, said it’s good for employers to see both sides of you, professional and academic, because they can tell if you will be able to balance both your schoolwork and an internship. However, Lowe said students should avoid personal character references because employers tend to not take them as seriously.
Mecozzi added that recommendations from supervisors could be useful for students applying to graduate school as well because they can tell admissions committees of other skills you have that are necessary for your future career. “As future physicians, students must be able to show admissions counselors that they are reliable, have good communication skills, good judgment and are relatable to others. These are things most likely not observed in a classroom setting,” Mecozzi said.
Deborah Chereck, director of the University of Oregon’s career center also suggested it’s more important to get a recommendation from someone who knows you well than requesting one from someone just because they have a high title. “I believe a trusted advisor can provide insight about a student that goes deeper to the person they are and the strengths they possess. I think a reference from folks who have important titles that you barely know do not serve you well,” she said.
Ultimately, it’s up to you to decide which aspects of yourself you want to show to an employer and who best could illustrate these traits through a recommendation letter, Dowling said. “You must look at all the facets of your life, whether it be a student profession organization, a charity organization, or a religious group, and think of leaders in those groups who have witnessed your various skills,” she said. “You want to showcase all parts of you and how you demonstrate leadership and communication in different ways.”