|It Takes More Than Good Grades! Some Straight Talk About How to Get Strong |
Letters of Recommendation
|David W. Wilson, Culver-Stockton College (MO)|
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.
Foundation for a Strong Letter of
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.
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
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
- 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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
|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.|
Copyright 1998 (Volume 2, Issue 2) by Psi Chi, the
International Honor Society in Psychology
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