asking for letters of recommendation

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Professors May Know You Better Than You Think (and That Might Not Be a Good Thing)

Posted on February 3rd 2017

When we interact with other people, we form attitudes and opinions about them based on what they say and do. Our attitudes and opinions can be challenged if we later observe a person behaving toward others in a manner that is inconsistent with our initial impressions of their character and comportment. If our first impressions of someone are negative, it can require a lot of positive observations to reverse our negative opinions. First they have to climb out of the hole they are in.

You Are Being Watched

Most students underestimate how much of their behavior is noticed by certain professors they encounter. It is important to realize that certain comments or behaviors that are innocuous to some people may still evoke disdain in others who have different attitudes about those things. For example, some students misjudge how their appearance or outward behavioral tendencies affect the attitudes that certain professors have about them. Students who stand out by dressing garishly or sporting showy make-up or hair-styles may find it harder to earn respect based on any truly relevant strengths they possess than do the conformists. This is not fair or rational, but it reflects an aspect of human nature. When we form an impression of someone from a few sketchy interactions, that person’s most salient traits or characteristics can obscure other traits that are actually more pertinent. The message here is that students who have a style or character that is a bit outrageous should consider toning it down when they are at school.

But, how much does is actually matter what your professors think of you on a personal level? It might matter quite a lot. Students who might someday need letters of recommendation from professors should understand that their behavior today, whether positive or negative, may still be reflected in the attitude that a professor has about them one or two years from now. Naturally, most professors will come to like or dislike some students more than others. Nobody is going to write a good letter of recommendation for someone they dislike, so students should be thinking about how their behavior could affect their chances of having support from professors later on.

Some of the student behaviors that professors dislike are obvious: The worst include talking with classmates or rolling eyes or smirking while the professor is speaking, or frequently arriving late for class or leaving early without any apparent good reason. One of the most frequent displays of disrespect in the classroom these days is to be looking at your smartphone, tablet, or laptop computer while the professor is talking. Students who think they will not be noticed or remembered because there are several other students doing the same thing are wrong about that. Of course, it depends on the professor, too. The important point is that some are very observant, and they are watching you, even if they aren’t doing so purposefully.

Some students fail to realize that they are insulting a professor when they complain about the way an exam, paper, or project was graded. Students perceived as arrogant or pretentious, or as loud, childish, silly or immature, will find it difficult to reverse those perceptions, even if they begin to behave more appropriately.

Be Mindful of How You Come Across

Some students engage in certain behaviors that they think will make a good impression on their professors, but with the opposite result. For instance, some professors encourage students to ask questions and voice their opinions in lectures, but dislike it when a student does too much of this and ends up monopolizing class discussions. Most professors don’t mind if a student occasionally drops by the office to talk about academic matters, but some students do this far too frequently, or even worse, they take up their professors’ time with their personal problems.

Among the behaviors commonly disliked are some that students would not expect professors to even notice or care about. One example is when students put in little effort and, as a result, do poorly on a midterm exam and later expect extra help outside of class to help them prepare for the final exam. Some professors may feel negatively about students who seem to be always anxious about minor things, or always stern-faced and much too serious, or chronically depressed. Everyone appreciates a compliment, but some students frequently compliment their professors in a manner that is perceived as manipulative. Teaching assistants, most of whom are graduate students, also observe undergraduate student behavior and they may pass on their own stories to their professors.

Some professors have more disdain for certain negative behaviors than other professors do, but naturally, all have some limit to what they can tolerate before they begin to dislike a student. Most professors are reasonable and will overlook an irritating behavior if the student otherwise shows very good promise. Most realize that students occasionally encounter personal problems or circumstances that legitimately take precedence over their studies. Even the most dedicated students may understandably become preoccupied for several days following a serious fight with a spouse, or the death of someone close to them, or some other tragic circumstance. Although most professors are sympathetic enough to occasionally grant an extension on an assignment, or to reschedule an exam for a student with personal problems, repeated requests for this kind of special consideration may indicate that the student is unable to cope with adult life and responsibilities. The same student is not likely to be able to cope with the demands of graduate school.

Students sometimes make the mistake of disparaging others when explaining the consequences of their own previous mistakes or shortcomings. Never, ever, blame a bad grade you received on the professor! Over-exuberance can also make a negative impression, although the people who display this tendency may not realize the extent to which it weighs negatively on how they come across to some people. People who behave effusively may be perceived as insincere, or even manipulative. No one will be convinced that you belong in graduate school because you say that you’re “really, really, really passionate” about the field of study. The point is not to avoid being enthusiastic, because enthusiasm and motivation are essential. Most people like others who have a cheerful demeanor. Just be careful not to overdo it, or else others may assume that you are insincere. Students who are too nonchalant or casual may come across as being not sufficiently interested or motivated.

Students who will later need positive letters of recommendation must do more than avoid behaviors that professors dislike. They should also give their professors some reason to have good opinions about them. It is not enough to “blend into the woodwork,” as this will not give the professor anything positive to say in a letter.

So, what are examples of admired student behavior that contribute to professors’ attitudes of students they like? As with disliked behaviors or characteristics, some of the admired ones are obvious: students who seldom or never miss a class, are attentive and ask insightful questions, and who occasionally participate in class discussions. I personally like to see students turn their attention directly to me and immediately close their phones, tablets, or laptops as soon as I begin a lecture. These behaviors give the impression that the student is interested in the course, and that he or she respects me and is mindful of why we are there in the first place.

Among the student behaviors that professors like are some that students would not expect professors to even notice or care about. For instance, professors like to see students help each other. Sharing your notes with a student who missed a class might save the professor from having to spend extra time going over the material with that student. Some professors like it when students smile and say “hello” when they pass by outside of class, and most prefer when a student is willing to make eye contact rather than blatantly trying to avoid it. Some professors respect students who have the courage to disagree with them in class from time-to-time, as long as it is done in a respectful manner.

For the most part, the relations that exist between a student’s behavior and a professor’s attitudes about the student are nothing more than common sense. The most important point to be taken from all of this is that your behavior is on display much of the time, and professors who come into contact with you on a regular basis are likely to use their observations of your behaviors to develop opinions about your character. Those opinions will be reflected in any letter of recommendation they might eventually write for you.

How to Dig a Hole and Jump In

Context matters. Something a professor just happens to notice you do or hears you say in the hallway one day might leave no significant impression. It might not enter the observer’s stream of consciousness for more than a moment, and it might be forgotten just as quickly. But in a different context, the same observation might have much greater impact and lasting consequences.

Many students appreciate that it is essential to get some relevant experience before applying to graduate school. One of the most common ways of accomplishing this is to volunteer to help professors with their research. This is the best way to set up the most relevant and effective letters of recommendation that will be helpful down the road when applying to graduate school, or to a professional degree program, or for a postgraduate scholarship, or for a job. Some students fail to realize that one of the most important benefits that can come from volunteering as a research assistant is that it puts them in situations that allow the supervising professor to see how they work, how they interact with others, their independence, motivation, communication skills, maturity, emotional stability, and the list goes on. These are the kinds of things professors tend to write about in a letter of recommendation. In fact, most graduate programs explicitly request that individuals providing recommendation letters evaluate the applicant on at least some of these dimensions.

Some students make the mistake of seeking out opportunities as volunteer research assistants without knowing all the reasons why it is important to do so, especially if they plan to apply to graduate school, someday. Many students mistakenly believe it’s all about getting the relevant experience, and they don’t consider how the impression they leave on the supervising professor can come back to either help or harm them several months or a couple of years down the road. There are ways to make the most of a volunteer research position, and there are ways to inadvertently make it a huge waste of your time and effort. This general topic is discussed in a previous post, “How to Make the Least of a Volunteer Research Position“. Anyone planning to volunteer as a research assistant with a professor should read that article. It might help avoid disadvantages thar are difficult to overcome.

Most letters of recommendation are never read! 

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A strategy I sometimes use to get students’ attention during a lecture, so they are ready to learn a key concept, is to surprise them with something unexpected and provocative, just before I explain the ‘big picture’ key concept. The goal is to arouse their intuition and allow them to prepare for some important analytical thinking. An “eyebrow-raiser” can help get a point across in such a way that helps it sink in.

I do the same thing when I’m speaking to a group of students about preparing for graduate-school applications. One of my favorites comes up when discussing how letters of recommendation are used in the evaluation of grad-school applicants. I like to point out that these letters are often the most influential part of a successful application. No controversy there. But, then, I tell them that most letters of recommendation are never actually read!

I have to admit to getting a bit of pleasure out of those four or five seconds of stunned silence from a crowd of avidly attentive and fixated people. They stare, with perplexed expressions, waiting for me to explain what I really meant to say. But, instead of clarifying or correcting my comment, I repeat it: “Seriously, most letters, or at least a large proportion of them, are never read by anyone, other than being proofread by the letter writers before they seal them in an envelope.”

I might play a bit more by saying something like, “Oh, the envelopes with the letters in them are all opened — that’s necessary to confirm that the required documents are inside. But, it would take too long to read all the letters, and the people deciding who gets in might not even find it helpful to do so.”

This is usually when the low-level murmur among the audience picks up, and I notice some of the puzzled looks are changing to expressions of annoyance. The time has now arrived to make my point — and everyone is ready and paying full attention.

Exactly what I proceed to talk about may be different on separate occasions, because there are a number of reasons why most letters are never actually read. I will usually go on to explain how the process of selecting applicants actually works, and how not all applications get the same amount of attention, partly because different people may be responsible for evaluating different applications to the same program. Alternatively, I could describe the student evaluation form that the person writing a letter of recommendation is normally required to fill out and submit along with the letter. Understanding how this evaluation form is used in the selection process can go a long way to explaining why many of the letters attached to them are never read.

Here are some other provocative statements I use to garner attention and interest when talking to students about grad-school applications:

“Decisions about who gets in have nothing to do with who deserves it the most.”

“Helping a professor with his or her research is the best way to set up an effective letter of recommendation. This strategy backfires, more often than not.”

“Many students are accepted into a graduate program before they even apply.”

“I’m dedicated to helping students prepare for graduate school, and to helping them get into the right program. But, I won’t encourage my own children to go to graduate school after college.”