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Should I ask this professor for a letter of recommendation?
August 25, 2010 3:27 PM   Subscribe

Is asking a professor I don't know well for a recommendation a mistake?

I am applying to a Masters program over the next couple months. I need 3 letters of recommendation, and I already have 2 really strong ones (one from a professor and one from a TA, both enthusiastic, glowing letters). I am a little stumped about who to ask for the final letter, as my job has a policy of not providing recommendation letters. One professor I am considering I took a class with in the Fall of 2009. This was an advanced, 10 credit Spanish class that I got a 4.0 in, frequently scoring perfectly or better (due to extra credit) on our weekly exams. I did not end up getting to know this professor well and haven't been in touch with him since then (primarily because I did so well in the class that I just didn't need his help very often). Would this be an appropriate person to ask for a recommendation? I am concerned that despite my impressive performance academically, he will either not be able or be unwilling to write my letter due to knowing very little about me outside of the classroom. Applications are not due until February.
posted by wansac to Education (20 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Do you have time to get to know somebody better between now and Feb?
posted by zug at 3:30 PM on August 25, 2010

Ask the professor if he would feel comfortable giving you a good recommendation.
posted by nosila at 3:30 PM on August 25, 2010 [2 favorites]

Do you have papers and/or old tests? Professors usually don't need to know about your hobbies and pets, but they do need proof of your excellent workmanship. I've gotten many great recs from English professors, some who'd long forgotten about my personal qualities, because they were able to go back through my papers and get a sense of my scholastic abilities. Because I'd saved all my old papers, it was easy for me to simply scan and email the copies to them.
posted by zoomorphic at 3:36 PM on August 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

Seconding asking the professor.

I recall that I talked to a couple of profs for grad school letters. One of them was from a huge class and thus he didn't remember me. He was quite candid. He said he'd happily do it, but his letter couldn't do more than report the facts. His opinion was that it wouldn't hurt and it wouldn't help. If I needed three letters then it would be fine if his was one of them, but if I was looking for the letter of recommendation then it would be a poor choice.
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 3:37 PM on August 25, 2010

I think you already know the answer to this question. A letter of recommendation speaks more to the quality of your character than to your grade point average. That is to say, I would be less concerned about his unwillingness to write the letter, than what the letter would say if he were to write it.

I would not hesitate to ask; you are simply gathering information. To that extent, try not to go in with any expectations and you should be fine.
posted by phaedon at 3:38 PM on August 25, 2010

Not the ideal situation, needless to say. But if it's truly your only option, then be sure to include with your request some documents that might orient the prof about who you are/were and, ideally, provide her/him with some easy examples, evidence, and details to fill out the letter itself.

Otherwise, if she/he even agrees to do it (which is less likely, since it's tough to recommend someone you can't remember), what you'll get is the sort of generic, single paragraph fluff that admissions committees will see right through.
posted by 5Q7 at 3:39 PM on August 25, 2010

You might mention that you'd be interested in stopping by his office hours to discuss the possibility of him writing a recommendation. That would give him a chance to remember you and to figure out a little bit more about you and your goals and how he might write you a rec that would be appealing to admissions committees. It would also give you an intuitive sense of whether he'd really be willing to write you a strong recommendation (as long as you do it respectfully, you can also ask about this directly). Profs. will generally be happy to write recs for students of theirs who have performed exceptionally well.

One caveat: you don't mention whether you expect that the Spanish (language? literature?) that you studied under this professor will be useful or important in your graduate study. If you actually plan to use the skills you acquired under this professor, then it's doubly a good idea to ask for a recommendation.
posted by washburn at 3:47 PM on August 25, 2010

Not entirely the answer to your question... you mention that your job has a no-recommendation policy, but do you have a former colleague no longer with the company that you could ask, or someone close in company that could write a recommendation as an individual instead of as affiliated with the company? If someone like this is available, you'd be more likely to get a good character reference type of letter than the generic former student type.
posted by dayintoday at 3:50 PM on August 25, 2010

Thanks for the responses thus far. Yes, I do plan to use Spanish in my future, and will be discussing this in my personal statement. One of my other letters is also from a Spanish professor, however.

This really isn't my only option, as I have been a great student and various people have commented on my work ethic and talent in person. The difficulty is that I've also been an extremely busy student that also has a job schedule to contend with and tends to be a bit shy and quiet outside of the classroom. There have been various other classes in which my academic performance was equally impressive, but the lack of report between the teacher and I makes it equally daunting.

I am currently planning to ask my boss for a letter despite the company policy, on the off-chance that she will agree to write me a personal letter if I keep this quiet around the office and agree to never reuse the letter for any other purpose. This would be the optimal outcome, so I have my fingers crossed, but realize it is fairly unlikely.
posted by wansac at 3:56 PM on August 25, 2010

If you do ask this professor, I recommend visiting him to chat about what you've been up to in the past year. If he agrees to write it, send a thank-you email immediately following your meeting that makes his job as easy as possible - without looking like you're trying to spoon-feed him bullet points. Especially useful is if you can summarize the program you're applying to and what you've been doing in school (ideally, with some a tie-in from his class) that would make you a good fit for [grad program X]. Perhaps you can point out some of the things you're talking about in your personal statement?
posted by deludingmyself at 4:12 PM on August 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

You know, you do have time to make a connection with one of the professors in whose classes you have done well if there are a couple of months before the recommendation is due. I'd suggest picking someone you actually like who is doing work similar to what you are interested in yourself, or who has a background doing work like that. Then I would drop by during office hours, with copies of your tests/essays in that course, and maybe something else like a paper from another course, and be frank. Say you are interested in a recommendation, and although you know this professor does not know you well, you are interested in doing what they do/have done. Listen to the professor's advice, answer questions, get to know them.

The result of this will certainly be a better recommendation than one based on your strong grades/tests alone, and might also win you a very helpful contact going forward.

Congratulations on your strong performance at work and in school to date.
posted by bearwife at 5:13 PM on August 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'd also advise you to find a reference letter from somebody other than a TA. You want full time professors writing you letters.
posted by synecdoche at 6:25 PM on August 25, 2010

It might be a good idea to give your potential references a copy of your vita. That way they can include some relevant info on you to fill in the gaps.
posted by WhiteWhale at 7:23 PM on August 25, 2010

On the one hand, writing a recommendation letter for someone I don't know from Adam's housecat is not a problem. Give me your name, any materials from the class I had you in, talk to me for a bit so I know some relevant details, and I'll write you a letter that's good enough that it's just barely true. This is a normal, expected part of the job and most anyone should be able and willing to do it.

On the other hand, we perfesser types do tend to be drawn from the "socially awkward weirdo" branch of humanity (verging into the "malignant psychopath" side), so maybe he won't.

On the gripping hand, do you have any letters from people in the field you want to do an MA in? Because those would be better.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 7:54 PM on August 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

Considering that one of your letters of rec is already from a TA, it's probably really important that this last letter come from a professor-- unless this is a type of program where it's very common for non-professors to give a recommendation (such as an MBA, I suppose? I don't know). I was advised to only use lecturers and TA's if I really really must...even someone I've worked closely with who's a post doc and already has a PhD is better. Not saying you shouldn't use that TA's letter, especially if it's glowing... it's probably just not going to hold as much weight, and it would be nice if this was counterbalanced Employers who weren't also professors weren't even spoken of (then again, I come from a science field, so maybe they are more stringent). I guess this is dependent on how long you've been working... it MIGHT be understandable if you've been out of school for awhile. I think you should give this professor a shot...and as others mentioned, sent them more information about you, such as the good work you did in the class and your CV. All of the professors I've asked have asked for my CV, GRE scores, and statements of the programs I'd like to pursue.

Additionally, since you seem to have a good relationship with at least one prof, can you ask them what their advice would be in such a situation? Would it be advisable to turn in 4 letters of recs (from prof you know, TA, employer, and prof you barely know)? I have no idea if that last statement is wise at all, so other input would be nice.
posted by lacedcoffee at 8:45 PM on August 25, 2010

Sorry for another post, but I just thought of something... why this professor over the other professors you barely know but also did well in? If they are all similar in this sense, and are similarly related to the programs you want to pursue, can you just ask a few of them, but clearly asking if they are willing to strong you a STRONG recommendation. That's something my professor also advised me, when I said I didn't know many professors well enough... she said that I just have to try, make a case about how I did well in their class as well as other things, and how important pursuing grad school in my chosen field is to me, then specifically ask for a strong recommendation. Who knows, maybe someone will be enthusiastic and do it.
posted by lacedcoffee at 8:58 PM on August 25, 2010

As an adjunct instructor, I will not write a recommendation for any student I don't know well. If the student makes an effort to communicate with me outside of class, I would be likely to do this. I receive several requests each term for LinkedIn recommendations and I have not given any yet. I have gone out of my way to help students in other ways such as aiding them in finding external resources to aid them with projects. I personally would not use my reputation to boost somebody I do not know well.
posted by ironghost at 9:10 PM on August 25, 2010

This worked for me just fine. I had a weird, meandering, unusual academic career, and then I didn't apply for grad school until 3 years after college graduation. When I asked the one professor I both thought might remember me and trusted to write me a good recommendation was leaving the next day for sabbatical. In the Amazon jungle. With no access to email or mail or carrier pigeons or anything. So, after bemoaning my fate for a bit, I worked up the courage to email another professor, one I hadn't been at all close to but who had given me an A (this also involved contacting my school and tracking the guy down, as he had only been a visiting professor and was now teaching overseas).

What I wrote to him, summarized:
- I need a letter of recommendation.
- I was in x class of yours and I majored in y. My final project in your class was on z.
- What I've been up to professionally since graduation and why I want to go to grad school
- I hope you would feel comfortable writing me a strong [key word here is strong] recommendation. I am happy to provide transcripts, writing samples, and any other information that would make this possible.

I really wasn't sure what to expect in response, but what ended up happening is that he agreed but asked me to write the first draft (which was a little nervewracking, but ultimately meant that I could say good things about myself and dial up details about my performance in the class that he wouldn't have remembered). He says that the edits he ended up making were pretty minimal. And I got into my dream school, so I guess whatever he sent in worked.

So, my advice is yes, absolutely, go ahead and ask. As long as you can provide info/materials that will give him something non-generic to write about, the worst that could happen is for him to say no.
posted by naoko at 9:32 PM on August 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

Hi again, and thanks for more responses. The TA's letter will not be a problem; he already holds several degrees from the school and has been teaching there for some number of years (they will most likely know who he is). He was a TA in the classes he worked with me, but teaches several of his own courses throughout the year. The MLIS cover sheet specifically states that it is acceptable to submit letters from references that can comment on academic ability or employment history, and the application asks for a resume detailing your library-related experience as well as all other employment history and relevant work; it is clearly not limited to professors only for this particular program.

The rest of my application is very strong (high GPA and GREs, lots of relevant experience, carefully researched and written statement of purpose), its just that I want to make sure the entire thing is strong, thus my concern about my final letter. I may very well do as one poster suggested and ask multiple profs for letters, if and when my boss declines to provide the last letter.

I cannot submit more than 3 letters; the application is explicit on this matter, and furthermore it really wouldn't too much considering the other two letters don't need to be "balanced out".

I am still an undergrad right now, and will be graduating this year and am hoping to start the program in the fall.
posted by wansac at 9:36 PM on August 25, 2010

Naoko, thanks for your response as that is pretty encouraging. I am hoping it will all work out that way for me as well, but it sure is nerve-wracking when you are only applying to one school and don't have a clear idea of what you will do if you aren't accepted!
posted by wansac at 10:09 PM on August 25, 2010

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