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I know a lot of questions are asked about letters of recommendation, but I was unable to find anything on this site or the internet in general that spoke to the particular issue of how to build the sort of relationship with a professor that results in good letters of recommendation. I get that you should of course do pretty well in the class and participate and go to office hours and be generally easy to work with and stuff (and ideally do research with the professor), but apart from that, is there nothing more you can do?

I know some might be eager to answer that you shouldn't be so mercenary about it (i.e. you should just organically be interested in the material and the professor and the good letter of recommendation will follow), so allow me to provide an example where this did not work out. I got a letter of recommendation from my favorite professor in college, which for some reason I was able to see (it was about a decade ago, so I forget how; I had waived my right to see it). Even though I thought he liked me (I went to office hours multiple times; I had two classes with him, both of which I did well in; he encouraged me to go for a fellowship; he even went out of his way to see a play I was in), the letter was the most basic "this student was in my class" sort of letter you could possibly imagine. It was such an incredible slap in the face.

Maybe he was just a jerk and that's that. Maybe I should have asked for a "strong" letter of recommendation (which I didn't know at the time was what you were supposed to ask). But regardless, given the vagaries of human relationships on top of the limitations of your own abilities, how is it even possible to get a strong letter of recommendation?

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    Being cordial does not imply lying (or exaggerating) on a recommendation letter. Perhaps your professor genuinely did not believe you were a top student. In order to get a good recommendation letter you should make sure that the person you ask has a high opinion of you professionally - having been previously praised for your work might be a good indication. – Miguel Oct 28 '14 at 23:23
  • If that's the case, then why did he encourage me to apply for a fellowship? Why, later, did he encourage me to submit my thesis to a competition? But fine, even if he didn't think I was all that great, how can one be a more "top" student than getting an A in a class? Are we just supposed to be the greatest genius since Gauss? – user124384 Oct 28 '14 at 23:25
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    Getting good grades does not guarantee being a good worker. The way I got good letters of recommendation was by asking professors that I had worked with (research projects and such) rather than those in whose courses I did well. Chances are, in a big class your professor might not even remember if you did well in the exam. – Miguel Oct 28 '14 at 23:30
  • I see. Also, this suggests that instead of asking our professors for help when we need it, we should only ask questions that are as advanced as we can handle, even beyond the scope of the class. Would you say that's the case? – user124384 Oct 28 '14 at 23:31
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    You can contact professors in your department asking if there are small projects you can work on related to their work. In my final year I got to work with one prof. on small lab stuff, did my final year research project with another one, and set up a class experiment for another one. I asked for letters of recommendation from the first two guys and got excellent ones. I guess the key is to build a personal working relationship with your professor. A professor that doesn't know how you work might be reluctant to recommend you. – Miguel Oct 28 '14 at 23:51
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Strong recommendation letters come from professional relationships, rather than personal relationships. Of course, the two are often related, but if a professor hasn't seen much more than getting an A in a class from a professional perspective, then they can't say that they have. A wise and helpful faculty member will warn you of this fact in advance, but faculty are human and many may not be wise enough or helpful enough to give an appropriate warning.

The canonical answer, of course, for getting a good recommendation to grad school is to work with a professor on an actual research project. What you actually need, however, is for a professor to be able to speak to your potential to become a good researcher. Even working on a research project will not necessarily demonstrate that, if your role is as a cog in somebody's machine (a friend once worked on a research project as an undergraduate where her job was literally to grind rocks into powder with a mortar and pestle: the project was awesome, the job they wanted done was not).

What does research potential really consist of? In my experience, research potential means:

  1. Creativity in approaching difficult or ill-defined problems
  2. Initiative enough to accomplish hard work work independently
  3. Skill enough to solve complex problems effectively
  4. Intelligence and background enough to acquire new skills when needed
  5. Social skills enough to do all of these things as part of a team (semi-optional)

There is another excellent way besides actual research projects to demonstrate all of these as an undergraduate: project-centric classes. Many graduate or upper-level undergraduate classes have an large optional or required capstone project. When you take on such a project, it gives you a chance to do something really cool, above and beyond the base minimum. With a good project, you can demonstrate all of these qualities to your professor and provide both the evidence and the motivation to write a really good letter.

  • Thanks for this. That makes sense for grad school, but what about non-research-related scholarships? Same stuff applies? (Also, these responses help me now that I'm in a field that does research, but just by the by, the professor I mentioned was an English professor, and if research was even a thing in the English department, I wasn't aware of it in all the years I was there.) – user124384 Oct 29 '14 at 1:11
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    @user124384 My experience is primarily in research-related areas, but what I said also applies to most other ventures as well, so I would expect there to be some applicability to the non-research world too. – jakebeal Oct 29 '14 at 1:30
  • If I may ask another question, I'm only in my first year of studies. How could anything I do in research be possibly impressive/creative/skillful at all? Also, how can we learn how to be creative/skillful in research apart from just being a natural genius? I guess ideally the professor would show us how, but given the fact that I was never told that research was the magic ticket to decent letters of recommendation, I assume I'm on my own on that count, too. – user124384 Oct 29 '14 at 8:41
  • @user124384 Typically, you learn how to effectively do research either by working with mentors or by trial and error. But you can demonstrate research potential in the form of creativity, skill, initiative, etc., in accomplishing any open-ended task. – jakebeal Oct 29 '14 at 14:20
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    @user124384 there's really no substitute for doing things. A friend of mine started doing intern stuff with a faculty member his freshman year of college. He worked hard, learned a lot of stuff early on, and by his junior year was actively contributing to research. You'll learn how to do these things by doing them -- ask if your professor has a project you can work on, and show you can make progress. Or at the very least, that you can ask questions about your roadblocks that allow you to get around them. – webb Oct 30 '14 at 18:37
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  1. Do well.
  2. Make sure they remember you.

As for (1), take challenging courses with respected professors, and take on research opportunities with professors.

As for (2), just remember to go to office hours at least once or twice. You generally have far greater risk of looking stupid for not asking help when you got less than an A, than for asking help for literally any topic coming from course material (and I'm sure there is a quite difficult thing the professor covered and would be surprised you took interest in at all).

Anything else and you are overthinking it.

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