How to Get a Glowing Recommendation Letter


Students who do well in my courses often come to me asking for a recommendation letter for graduate or postgraduate study. I only write letters for students I know well and I can honestly recommend, so some end up with a glowing recommendation while others leave empty handed. While I was drafting a few letters today, it occurred to me that obtaining a good recommendation letter is a lot easier if you've planned for it well in advance.

Here is a (fairly typical) set of questions asked by a top US university.

Please evaluate the applicant in comparison with others you have known during your professional career.
  • Intelligence
  • Maturity
  • Oral communication
  • Written communication
  • Originality and creativity
  • Ability to analyze
  • Perseverance towards goals
  • Ability to work independently without close supervision
  • Ability to get along with people
  • Overall potential for graduate study

Read the list carefully and you'll notice that if your professor knows you only as a member of a 180 student class (this is the size of a second year class I was teaching) he's unlikely to be able to offer a sincere opinion on any of the above attributes. Therefore, in order to get a good recommendation letter, you need to ensure that your professor knows you well enough to be able to answer all the questions, preferably by ticking superior or outstanding on the corresponding selection boxes.

Here are some ways to let your professor appreciate your unique talents.

  • Take optional assignments. These are often more demanding than the homework assigned to all students, and will therefore allow you to demonstrate your skills. If such assignments aren't offered in your course, go and ask for extra work.
  • Take a demanding elective course and try to excel there. Elective courses have fewer students, and thus offer you a better platform to distinguish yourself.
  • Take up a research internship. Often research groups will work with outstanding undergraduate students as interns during the holidays. In such an internship you'll not only learn a lot about research, but your supervisor will also get to know you and be able to write that glowing recommendation letter.
  • Form an active role in an open source project. Again, you'll learn a lot about real-life software development, and through your participation you'll be able to demonstrate many of the qualities in the above list.
  • Participate in student-led initiatives. Help organize a presentation or a conference, edit a newsletter, or form a student chapter for a professional organization, like the ACM, IEEE, or USENIX.
  • Write an article for a conference or even a journal.
  • Work for a company or start your own one. (If you do well you may not even need a recommendation letter: following the example of Bill Gates and Michael Dell you can settle for an honorary doctorate.)

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Last modified: Sunday, December 27, 2009 5:53 pm

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Unless otherwise expressly stated, all original material on this page created by Diomidis Spinellis is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.