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How well should you know a professor before asking for a rec?

  1. Dec 29, 2009 #1

    Simfish

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    For a lot of programs, you're supposed to ask for recommendations from 3 different professors. In an ideal situation, one could develop close relationships with 3 different professors, but that usually doesn't happen. So, I'm thinking, how well should I (or anyone else) know a professor before asking for a rec? Would stopping by for office hours a few times in the quarter be enough (is this how a lot of people know 1-2 of the profs they asked for recs from?). If I'm, say, asking for a rec from a professor I took a class in, what sort of grades should I get in that class before asking for a rec? (of course, a really good rec could come from a prof who gave a B to a student, although those cases are probably rare and would demand exceptional effort on part of the student, and would demonstrate the student's curiosity+conscientiousness more than talent). Of course, I'd imagine that students have varying experiences with each prof, so one prof's rec could highlight intelligence, one could highlight hard-working-ness, etc...

    Thanks!
     
  2. jcsd
  3. Dec 29, 2009 #2
    Ideally you should be doing substantial research for at least one of the people giving you recs. Stopping by for office hours is only good enough if your visits are substantial enough that the professor remembers you as more than "oh yeah, you were in my class and liked to bother me sometimes"-generally that's about the level where you should be looking for someone else. Even getting an A+ isn't good enough if the professor can't remember anything 'cept that you got the A+, but many professors will ask for your projects/term papers/etc. so that they can make stuff up if you're in that situation. (Or you give it to them, with your transcript).

    Professors who you've taken a few classes with are usually better than one offs, just 'cause they've had more chances at seeing your work and more experience with it. Try not to use the professor teaching the 102 lecture to a 100 people, unless he lets the TA responsible for you write it. Smaller classes give you a better shot at being remembered and getting a decent relationship with a professor. If the professor can't give any details and the rec reads "X was a really bright, hardworking student who did well on the final and turned in a superb final project", you probably want to find someone else.
     
    Last edited: Dec 29, 2009
  4. Dec 29, 2009 #3

    Choppy

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    I think this usually comes down to going with what you've got.

    You're right in that the ideal situation would be for each of your references to know you well and think very highly of you (and have the ability to articulate that in a letter).

    As a minimum cutoff you should want the references to know you well enough that if they were called up and asked questions about you on the spot they would have something intelligent to say. Consider professors with whom you've had more than one class, or perhaps those you have served on a committee with, done some marking for, or volunteered with. Many of them will likely know you better than you think (which can be both good and bad).
     
  5. Dec 30, 2009 #4

    Vanadium 50

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    It helps to turn this around - look at it from the professor's point of view. What can he say about you? Can he say more than "he got a B+ in my class?"
     
  6. Dec 30, 2009 #5
    On a related note, are all of the professors in the US and Canada only willing to give out recommendations when they really know you or are there some that will sign a "bianco" recommendation (aka they just go with what the one that's being recommended writes, as long as it's not making stuff up or going too far in words of kindness and praise)?
     
  7. Dec 30, 2009 #6

    Choppy

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    You'll find all types.

    I once had a professor who admitted that rather than declining to give a reference because he didn't know the student well enough or thought poorly of him, when asked, he would just write an honest reference to the point where he would literally say, "Do not accept this person into your program."

    The lesson in that is that you should at least know the professor well enough to know whether or not he or she will write a good reference letter for you.
     
  8. Dec 30, 2009 #7
    Some professors will let you write your own recs and just sign those, but I was talking to professors who are part of the admissions crew at other universities, and admissions people generally hate them and can spot them from a mile away. I've read a couple, and they are horrible 'cause most students don't know what a professor wants to know about a student, so they end up highlighting all the wrong things, assuming the student doesn't just write something horribly generic. Other professors will have you write your own rec and then change it into something decent-these are usually worth doing.

    I know a professor who was asked by a rec from somebody in his 200 student lecture class. He didn't know the girl at all, told her he was gonna write a bad rec, and was still pestered to write it. He just feels sorry for the kid at this point, but this is not gonna be a promising rec. Professors will usually be honest about whether they can write you something decent.
     
  9. Dec 30, 2009 #8

    Vanadium 50

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    I'm sure there is at least one, but I would not sign such a letter, and I don't think any of my colleagues would either.
     
  10. Jan 8, 2010 #9
    On yet another related note, is there a limit for how many time you should ask a professor for a reference letter? I have a couple of professors that I have done research with and they know me well. They have written a few excellent references for me in the past (4 in the last 9 months or so) and have been glad to do so. But as it seems like for any worthwhile internship/scholarship I apply for, I need at least two reference letters, I keep on wanting to come back to them since they are my best references. At some point, might they just get annoyed with me asking them for references? I know professors are very busy people and I hate asking the same people for multiple letters.
    Thanks
     
  11. Jan 9, 2010 #10
    It's not very different from saying "hi, I'm applying to 10 grad schools, can I have letters please?" Basically, the letter the professor is writing doesn't need to change between applications, so most professors don't care 'cause they've just gotta print something out again. If they're really nice they'll add something new if they can, but that means they like you enough to do so. Just make sure to thank the guys/give them a card/gift as appropriate.
     
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