As a faculty member in a psychology department, I write numerous letters of recommendation every year for students seeking jobs and graduate school acceptances. I take my task very seriously as I know how important such letters are for a student's chances of success. For example, a perusal of Graduate Study in Psychology (American Psychological Association, 1996) shows that most graduate programs in our field rate letters of recommendation as "high" in importance. Furthermore, research by psychologist Patricia Keith-Spiegel (1991) revealed that faculty involved in graduate admission selections were particularly impressed by letters of recommendation from faculty mentors with whom a student had worked closely.
Clearly, it is in your best interest, as a student, to get the strongest letters of recommendation possible. But how can you be assured of getting decisive, enthusiastic letters? For starters, do not be misled into thinking that all you have to do is go to your classes and make good grades. For me to be an informative, effective letter writer for you, I need to know more about you than the fact that you have a high grade point average (GPA) or that you made A's in all of my classes. Good grades are an important start but, by themselves, are not enough. Many students have a high GPA--and many students, of course, even have a perfect 4.0! But not all of these students get strong letters of recommendation. Those who do not get such letters have usually failed to distinguish themselves through active involvement in their major, or, if they have been involved, have failed to sufficiently demonstrate appropriate abilities, attitudes, and work habits both in and out of the classroom.
Laying the Foundation for a Strong Letter of Recommendation
* If I am to write an effective letter of recommendation for you, I need to be able to discuss at length (at least several pages) specific examples and demonstrations of your abilities, potential, and personal qualities. In other words, I need to describe concrete evidence that will hopefully set you apart from your peers and help establish that you do, indeed, have the characteristics that make you an optimal job or graduate school candidate.
My Unsolicited Advice
It should be evident that the burden is on you, the student. No amount of expertise or experience I have in writing letters of reference will help unless you first provide a substantive, solid foundation for a strong letter. Over the course of your education (don't start when you are a senior!), you need to be taking a number of positive steps that will reflect well on your abilities, work habits, attitudes, and commitment to the field. And you need to realize that everything you do--in and out of the classroom--reflects the kind of person you are and provides the substance of some future letter of recommendation. You would be wise to focus on the "big picture" and not just on grades. So what exactly should you do and not do? Here are my suggestions:
- Have a positive attitude about school, classes, psychology, and learning in general. Be interested and curious about issues and questions in the field. Always show a desire for self-improvement and personal growth. Always be prepared. Make hard work your trademark by doing the very best job you possibly can in all that you do. And do not be a complainer who views everything in life as unfair, too difficult, or irrelevant. The classroom itself is a good place to start in your display of a positive attitude. The advice offered here means that you should always attend class, be attentive, have readings and other assignments completed on time, treat all assignments as important and as new opportunities to expand your knowledge and skills, do what is required and then some, seek feedback on how to improve your performance, and be an active participant who asks thoughtful questions and contributes constructively to class discussions. Along the way, avoid any comments that might even remotely be interpreted as whining! Your attitude is critical, and, whatever it is, it spills over into your other activities outside the classroom.
- Get involved in your major. Do more than take classes. Be seen around the department. Work with faculty on their research projects. Do internships and volunteer work in the community. Actively participate in Psychology Club or Psi Chi activities--do not be an invisible member on the roster. Take advantage of any opportunities or invitations to serve as a departmental or faculty assistant (e.g., tutor, teaching assistant, or research assistant). In my own department, we employ a number of students in a variety of capacities such as research assistant or assessment coordinator. Other students serve on a volunteer basis. Several students, for example, have been involved in setting up our computerized psychology lab or helping create our department's World Wide Web page.
- Demonstrate your capacity for independence and creativity by conducting your own research project under a faculty member's supervision. Present your work at a professional research conference, and, in the process, provide evidence of your analytical ability as well as your writing and public speaking skills.
- Exhibit your leadership skills. Run for office in Psi Chi or other student organizations.
- Take an interest in the profession of psychology by joining the American Psychological Association (APA) or the American Psychological Society (APS) as a student affiliate. When opportunities arise, attend professional meetings and research conferences. Every spring semester, a number of psychology students at my college attend a regional undergraduate psychology research conference. Many of those students present papers, while others attend as observers (and hopeful future presenters!).
- Be dependable. Show up for appointments and events on time. Meet deadlines and complete tasks as they were assigned. Exemplify trustworthiness by following through on your promises and commitments.
- Be a self-starter. If you know what needs to be done, do it. Be the kind of person who does things without always having to be told or asked to do them. If you do not know what you are to do next, ask!
- Take responsibility for your own actions. Refrain from making excuses or blaming for your problems. If you make a mistake, admit it, accept the consequences, and strive to improve. Do not expect others to do for you what you should do yourself.
- Be self-confident but modest. Boasting, self-promotion, and a know-it-all attitude work against you. If you are to succeed in a job or in graduate school, you must be able to accept and respond constructively to suggestions, criticism, evaluative feedback, and supervision. Prepare yourself by practicing these constructive reactions now.
- Be polished and professional in all that you do. Again, remember that everything reflects back on you and suggests what kind of person you are--whether you are a sloppy person, a person who doesn't care, or a person who is organized, careful, and conscientious. Always put your best foot forward, whether writing a term paper, carrying out an internship, or chairing a Psi Chi meeting.
- Be genuine. Phoniness and deception will be detected.
- Be a model of perseverance! When a task gets difficult or you face unexpected keep working hard.
- Prove that you can work effectively with others. Be a team player. Be fair with your fair share of the work. Show respect for others. Be helpful and supportive of others.
- Display initiative and motivation by doing more than is expected of you. "Go mile" in your pursuit of knowledge. Be willing to take difficult, challenging courses; avoid taking the easy, undemanding path to a high GPA. Express a willingness to do more than master the content of psychology; seek to expand your skills in the supportive areas of writing, speaking, mathematics, statistics, and computing. Spend time in the library, find some topics that capture your interest, keep up with the latest relevant literature in psychological journals, and perhaps even subscribe to journals through your student affiliate membership in APA or APS. Finally, if you are eligible to participate in your college's honors program, do it. Take the challenge and gain the valuable experiences inherent in such a program's classes and projects. In most honors programs, for example, the culminating experience is some type of research project. This is one more excellent opportunity to demonstrate your creativity, analytical skills, perseverance, independence, and communication skills.
The Perspective of Employers and Graduate Programs & the Implications for You
The factors I have emphasized here do matter to prospective employers and graduate programs. Employers and graduate faculty are interested in students who have intellectual ability, creativity, high motivation, self-control and self-discipline, leadership skills, good work habits, the ability to accept supervision, the ability to complete a task, the ability to relate well to others, strong communication skills, and the capacity to work effectively either independently or as a team member. In short, employers and graduate programs want students with the demonstrated potential to be successful and to make significant contributions to their profession.
If faculty letter writers are to address such matters relating to abilities, attitudes, and other personal qualities, they need supportive, concrete evidence from both in and beyond the classroom. If you sit passively in your classes, don't get involved in the major, don't interact with faculty in significant ways, and don't display appropriate abilities, attitudes, and work habits, it will be very difficult for those faculty members to write strong letters of recommendation for you. And this will be the case even if you truly are a very intelligent person with good grades, strong test scores (e.g., on the Graduate Record Examination), and lots of potential.
Prospective employers and graduate school admissions committees do not need letters of recommendation to inform them about your grades and test scores. They do need such letters to find out about your other qualities. And, as I have indicated, such qualities are, in fact, very important in their evaluation of you. So if you have not yet taken the step of getting involved in your major and getting better acquainted with your faculty, take some kind of action today. Knock on a professor's door, inquire about opportunities to get involved, volunteer for something, express an interest in research, sign up to do an internship, attend a research conference with other students and faculty, or get actively involved in Psi Chi activities. And if you need to improve your attitudes, work habits, and commitment to the field, do that. But whatever you do, start now. Don't leave me, the letter writer, with only a few fond memories of you from one or two of my classes and a few generalities about you that I have heard from others. Remember that if I am to comment on your potential, I need evidence of that potential.
A note of caution is probably appropriate at this point: you should not consider my suggestions as a series of hoops that you must go through just to impress your faculty so that they will write strong letters for you. Such a view misses the point. Instead, you should realize that heeding the suggestions makes sense precisely because you need to do these things to be successful. The best predictor of future performance is current and past performance. Not surprisingly, then, prospective employers and graduate programs who are keenly interested in your future potential very much want to know what kind of student and worker you are now and have been in the past.
What To Do When It's Time to Ask for a Letter:
An Important Addendum
The overall strategy I have described for getting strong letters of reference needs a few additional steps beyond the laying of the foundation. When it is time to ask me for a letter of recommendation, be sure to ask me if I can write a strong letter for you. After all, a weak letter may very well do more harm than good. If I cannot write a strong letter, I will tell you so. If that happens, you should find faculty who can write such a letter for you. But let's assume that I am able to write an enthusiastic letter because you have done all the right things to justify my doing so. Your strategy at that point should be to affirm, document, and help me remember all those things. Furthermore, you should realize that even if I know you well, I may not know about everything that is germane to your job or graduate school applications. So when you ask me to write a letter for you, provide me with a copy of your vita. On that vita, be sure to include such items as honors and awards, research experience (list research activities as well as products of research such as conference papers and published articles on which you were an author or coauthor), teaching experience (e.g., tutor or course proctor), other relevant work experience (e.g., student assistant for the psychology department or summer employment at a community mental health center), internships, volunteer activities, special skills (e.g., computing and statistics), and membership in professional organizations (e.g., Psi Chi, APA, or APS). Also provide me with a photocopy of your current transcript, your Graduate Record Examination results, samples of your writing, a listing of research conferences or other professional meetings you have attended, an assessment of your strengths and weaknesses, and a detailed statement of your career goals and interests. If you are applying to graduate school, provide me with a copy of your application essay (personal statement) written for that application. And one final note: give me adequate time to get your letter prepared before the application deadline! In fact, at the time you ask me if I am willing to write a letter for you, also ask me how much preparation time I need prior to any given deadline.
A Concluding Comment
I want to write the very best letter of recommendation for you that I can. If you follow the advice offered in this article, it should greatly increase the probability of that happening and, in turn, increase your chances of getting the job or graduate school acceptance you are seeking. An effective letter of reference is most certainly the end product of a faculty member-student partnership. But it all begins with and hinges upon what you, the student, do and provide.
Think optimistically and take charge!
American Psychological Association (1996). Graduate study in psychology. Washington, DC: Author.
Keith-Spiegel, P. (1991). The complete guide to graduate school admission: Psychology and related fields. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
* "A LADY WRITING A LETTER," JAN VERMEER (1632-75), National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: David W. Wilson, PhD, is professor of psychology and chair of the Division of Social and Behavioral Sciences at Culver-Stockton College in Canton, Mo., where he has been since 1988. Dr. Wilson received his BS in psychology from Kansas State University where he was inducted into Psi Chi in 1971 and served as Psi Chi president during the 1971-72 year. He received his MS (1974) and PhD (1976) in social psychology from lowa State University. His current research focuses on two areas: (1) understanding the conditions under which people label negative interracial acts as racist and (2) values education. On the latter topic, Dr. Wilson and his spouse, Ruth Ann, authored a 1997 article in the Delta Kappa Gamma Bulletin entitled "Teaching Positive Values in the Classroom" and a 1997 book for middle school students and teachers entitled Promoting Positive Values for School and Everyday Life, published by Mark Twain Media. The Wilsons are parents of two daughters: Jessica, a senior psychology major at the University of Missouri - Columbia, was recently inducted into that university's Psi Chi chapter; Jocelyn, a high school senior, just completed her first college-level course (General Psychology) and will attend the University of Missouri next fall.
Winter 1998 issue of Eye on Psi Chi (Vol. 2, No. 2, pp. 11-13, 42), published by Psi Chi, The National Honor Society in Psychology (Chattanooga, TN). Copyright, 1998, Psi Chi, The National Honor Society in Psychology. All rights reserved.