The normal case is that students should obtain a recommendation letter for graduate school from the professor under whom the student has performed research.

Currently, I am taking a course conducted by a field-famous professor, from whom I wish to obtain a recommendation letter for my grad school application. However, due to some reasons, I am not able to do research under him, which implies that our only connection is that course that I am currently taking.

If so, maybe one year later, he may refuse to write me a letter, because he does not know me well, or even has forgotten me. Even if he is willing to write me a letter, being not familiar with me, he may not be able to write a decent letter for me.

(By "decent", I mean a letter that actually can help. I know that as long as he is willing to write me one, he can simply say "the student obtained a good grade from my course". I don't think this kind of letter will actually help, IMHO.)

So besides obtaining a good grade for this course and frequently asking valuable questions, what can I do to impress him so that I can obtain a decent recommendation letter for my future grad school application? How to make him understand me better?


3 Answers 3


Visit the professor and explain your plans and your wish to have him provide a letter in a brief but structured way. Slip in some of your (positive) thoughts concerning his course and, if you were inspired by it, the importance of the course for your current interest. I do not think you can do more. If the person is not interested, I doubt you can do anything to change the view that would not be annoying in the end. It is possible the person has forgotten you but if you stood out even a little in the class, my bet would be the opposite. As I see it you only risk getting a no, and not much could be done to change that.

  • 1
    I would add that if the course contained a project or a presentation, then to ask if those had any positive impressions on the professor. One thing to also do would be to speak with the professor EARLY in the class and express an interest in the material and to mention as well that you're interested in doing further research in the area.
    – Irwin
    Commented Feb 5, 2014 at 21:54

I would suggest the following, but it all depends on the situation at your university, how much time and effort you are willing to exert for this, and how complicated are the reasons that make you unable to do research under him.

  • Unpaid research: Suggest to do some work under his supervision without a return (without being paid)
  • Teaching Assistantship: Try to be his teaching assistant in one of his courses, this will open a lot of doors for opportunities to approach him and give him a good impression about you.
  • Approach his students: If he has PhD students try to approach them and suggest helping out in something just for the sake of learning, by time you'll get in close contact with your guy.
  • Show off: the basic approach of all, drop at his office and brag about yourself, and ask him for a recommendation letter based on your relation during the course and your grades. Although I don't see this very meaningful, but I see some recommendation letters where the referees say how much the student has learnt during an internship that the referee had nothing to do with.. But it works and some universities accept such recommendation letters.
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    "Approach his students" doesn't seem incredibly useful. PhD students might want to talk about research, but typically don't have projects for even younger students, and even if they had some jobs that could be done by an undergraduate, they should be doing the work themselves.
    – Vibert
    Commented Feb 6, 2014 at 8:02
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    Sometimes it's a win-win, when a PhD student supervises an undergraduate's work that contributes to the former's thesis. I wouldn't see it as abandoning a responsibility since the PhD student will also invest time and effort in the supervision and guidance. Commented Feb 6, 2014 at 22:03
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    Nor would I recommend "Show Off" as an option. I would seriously doubt that given the time costs involved in writing, someone would give you the time of day if they didn't know you.
    – Bluebird
    Commented Nov 11, 2017 at 5:30

It is very good to let the recommendation to show you are very good at learning new things. Although it is not directly upvote your research skills, the strong learning ability helps find new research topics, and master the research-required skills fast.

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