Yet another grad school letter of recommendation inquiry...
November 14, 2006 12:17 PM   Subscribe

What do you do when your connection with your immediate professors seems slim at best?

I'm applying to a graduate nursing program at UCLA (MECN), and am required to submit three letters of rec. These are to be submitted on a UCLA-provided form, not narrative or free form.

I feel as if my academic pool of references is a tad bit light, as I the courses I'm taking now are mainly science pre-reqs that I didn't cover as an undergrad. This means that I'm taking one class at most with each prof, albeit I've done very well in each. I'm afraid that I don't have a deep enough connection with my current profs to legitimately ask for a rec.

A bio prof who I've taken Honors Anatomy with over the summer (4 hours a day, 5 days a week, x 6 weeks, intimate class size) made an offhand remark about how he would complete letters of rec for those individuals who proved their worth in his class and demonstrated their effort. Now its coming to the day where it looks like he will be my best prospect, and I'm clueless as to what to say specifically.

What do you do when your connection with your immediate professors seems slim at best? I know I may be reaching here, and I know the worst case scenario is that he just declines to do it as it is outside of his comfort zone, but are there any tips for this situation.

Note: My B.A. in Psych was completed in 2004, so I don't have much communication with my previous professors up there, nor do they have any idea of my current grad plans.
posted by Asherah to Education (8 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
This happens all the time for people who go to big state schools. Do the work for them: prepare a "crib sheet" of your accomplishments in general, as well as in their class (i.e. if you did anything especially creative above and beyond what was required; tutored fellow classmates; sought related outside experience, etc.).
posted by availablelight at 12:29 PM on November 14, 2006

I was in a similar situation when I was a senior in college. By the time I was a senior, I realized I had exhausted my recommendation writing pool, as I had tapped nearly all my close connections multiple times for scholarships, grants, etc. When it came time for graduate school, well, I didn't know who to ask.

This doesn't seem like an option for you, but I spent my last two semesters kissing as much ass as possible, and pulling in A's in all of the classes that I wanted to get a rec. out of. I was in many of those professor's offices each night, just chatting about nothing.

Needless to say when it came time to ask for a rec. they were prepared to do so.

This doesn't seem like an option for you, as you have already graduated.

What I would suggest, in your case, is to simply be direct. Write a letter to the professors that might remember you and would perhaps be willing to put in a good word. Keep your letter short and sweet. Attach some relevant papers you wrote in their classes so they can distinguish you from the hundreds of other faces they have taught. When asking for the recommendation itself, I liked to phrase it this way: "Would you feel comfortable writing me a positive letter of recommendation for x program..." Putting it in these terms provides them an escape route if they know they will only be able to write a sub-par rec. The key word is "positive."

It seems like your problem won't be getting the recs, as most professors will write them simply as part of their job; rather the main issue is if the recs will be any good. Do the most you can to ensure this by refreshing their memory of your academic performance, providing them with transcripts, a statement of purpose and so on (of course, save sending those things until after they've agreed to write it). You can also arrange a chat with them over coffee. Don't forget that it's never to late to score some brownie points. I just looked up one of my old professors on JStor, read a recent journal article of hers and struck up an e-mail conversation about it. Months later when it was time for me to ask her for a rec., she had no qualms whatsoever.

Good luck.
posted by dead_ at 12:31 PM on November 14, 2006

Not only do professors understand that this is part of the job, they have all also been in your position.

I recommend sending emails to the professors whom you believe will be the most impressive additions to your application -- for whom you did good work, of course -- and asking them if they would be willing to recommend you.

In your letters, remind them who you are and butter them up a little bit ("The organic chemistry class you taught in Fall 2004 was an important milestone in my undergraduate experience because of both the clarity you brought to the subject and the confidence, in turn, that my experience in the class gave me to pursue my long-term goal of attending nursing school at UCLA").

It's also won't hurt to make them feel special by pointing out why their rec, in particular, will be useful. This can also help guide the direction of the recommendation. ("I believe that, with your reputation for rigorous attention to detail in experimental design, a recommendation from you will strengthen my application by demonstrating that I am prepared to do hands-on work in a high-pressure environment.")

If you got A's in their classes, they should have no problem writing recs.
posted by milkman at 1:13 PM on November 14, 2006

well, dead_ certainly has the method down, but you may not have to go to that extent. If you were a student in their class, it may be enough to send them an email explaining what you're applying for, asking if they would write a letter for you, and listing when you were in their class, what grade you got and what projects you worked on, if any.
posted by Mr. Gunn at 1:15 PM on November 14, 2006

Oh, and I would definitely contact at least one professor from your Psych program. 2004 wasn't that long ago, and it provides the opportunity to show that you have been consistently impressive over a range of institutional experiences.

If you had professors who were on your side when you finished that program, just contact them and tell them about your current plans. They should be willing to help.
posted by milkman at 1:16 PM on November 14, 2006

You'd be surprised how well-prepared professors are, even in reasonably big classes, to write about especially strong students. When I'm the professor in this situation, I often ask the student to come in and sit down with me for 20 minutes to talk about her plans, ambitions, etc.... this helps me write a more personal and informed letter. (But I'd say something like this is for the prof., not you, to suggest.)

And if a professor doesn't feel they can write you a good letter, don't worry, they'll tell you!

Other answerers are right -- don't rule out getting recs from your B.A. professors. I've written letters for students I taught ten years ago.
posted by escabeche at 2:23 PM on November 14, 2006 [1 favorite]

I used to write recommendations all the time, for students who had only taken one class with me. Indeed, I'd write the recommendations mid-semester sometimes, before the student had actually completed a class with me.

I wouldn't worry about not having a strong enough connection with them. You do.
posted by jayder at 3:27 PM on November 14, 2006

Oh, and I would definitely contact at least one professor from your Psych program. 2004 wasn't that long ago

Make sure your contact with them provides some of the crib notes availablelight mentions and some cues to help them remember you. 2004 wasn't so long ago that it's unreasonable to use those people but it's a lot of students ago for those profs.

I don't think you have any reason to be shy about using those old references either. Those are people who you did senior-level classes under rather than the presumably more 'core' stuff you're doing now. It'd be nice to have current achievements listed there but to make a parallel to the work world I want to see recommendations from people who did challenging stuff with a candidate several years ago more than I want to see commendations on how well they did run-of-the-mill things last month.
posted by phearlez at 4:02 PM on November 14, 2006

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