I understand references make a huge difference when applying to graduate programs.

Over my years in university, I have spoken to professors about projects / exams / papers. I definitely make use of their office hours. I also go to a top school and am set to graduate with high honors. I am an extremely determined and motivated person. Although I have made use of the available resources, this is an extremely difficult/rigorous school and thus very few people achieve anywhere near a 4.0. My cGPA is a 3.5 and my GPA over the last 2 years is a 3.7. I have also been involved in a lot of organizations related to my field of interest/research. Including, volunteer on three projects at a renown research hospital and research for an undergraduate science magazine.

However, I have severe social anxiety. I understand this is “no excuse” in academia for not making connections, but it is extremely difficult for me to be around other people. It is severe. It has been a huge step for me to even go to the office hours (which I am proud of myself for doing), but I have not stood out from the crowd and I doubt any remember my name. I have never wanted anything more (graduate school), and yet my mental illness is a severe restriction on my life. I have been seeing a psychiatrist and have made huge improvements since high school (when the social anxiety became severe).

Is it necessary that I only acquire references from professors with whom I have developed a close relationship? Should I discuss these struggles in my application?


2 Answers 2


I can see this is a difficult spot for you. After all, to be good at your work doesn't necessarily require you to love interacting with people, but to get into the field you require letters of recommendation, which are best achieved by... interacting with people.

A few thoughts:

  1. Are you more comfortable communicating over email? If you can combine a good email correspondence with good course work, I think there's a path to overcoming this. You can easily email your professors (using the less verbose style of your revised OP!) and ask about graduate school, research interests, and finally letters of recommendation.
  2. Have you taken classes with the same professors repeatedly? This is one piece of advice I give to undergraduates a lot. Each good semester with a professor helps reinforce the positive impression. Assuming you still have one semester left before finishing, I would prioritize doing this again. Speaking for myself, student's names I only see once are often quickly forgotten unless I've gotten to know them in person well, but student's names I see repeatedly start to stand out regardless, especially if they've done solid work.
  3. Related to 2, have you taken only very large classes with the professors you want letters from? If so, and if it's possible, you might try to get into a smaller section they're teaching even if it's of less (but not unrelated) interest to you academically.
  4. You would be surprised how far showing up to office hours with good questions will get you, I think. You said you've managed to overcome your anxiety enough to do this, and I don't think you should underestimate the benefit.

In summary, find alternative ways to build relationships with the professors, through repeated interactions and electronic communication. You don't have to be chumming it up regularly with your letter writers in person to get good letters of recommendation, though even the few visits to office hours you have managed will have likely helped. Also make sure you read the posts others have linked in the comments regarding mental health issues and PhD admissions.

Good luck!

  • Thank you, this is a fantastic response!! I did especially like the one link ff524 provided about what to say in an initial letter. I have taken 2 classes with the same professor before. These were both very small classes and this professor did know me by name, at the time. I took these classes in my first and second year of University. However, I am now in my fifth year and haven't spoken to him in about 3 years. Thus, not only is he unaware of my performance since his classes (both of which I performed well in), but he may not remember me. I did have another professor earlier this year...
    – aspire94
    Commented Oct 27, 2016 at 16:53
  • ... for another small class. I spoke to her once in office hours and it took her months weeks to learn my name. So she likely has forgotten it by now. Both of these professors are very nice. I'd like to mention that the first professor did help me write a letter of purpose to get into my undergraduate program (it's second-year entry). But again, I have not spoken to him in years (although unrelated, my younger cousin is actually in a first-year class with him at the moment).
    – aspire94
    Commented Oct 27, 2016 at 16:54
  • @aspire94 In that case, while I think email is possible, coming by to say hello in person may be your best option. I don't know how difficult that would be for you, so you'll have to weigh the benefits there. But they're probably a lot more likely to remember you when you give him/her a face to associate with the name. You can re-introduce yourself as if you're assuming he doesn't remember you, tell them what classes you took with them and when, and that you're considering grad school and ask advice. It might help if you don't go asking for a letter straight away! Less pressure.
    – Jeff
    Commented Oct 27, 2016 at 16:57
  • Excellent suggestion. Yes, it will be very difficult (I'll likely have heart palpitations the morning of / night before). But I can see where it goes. Perhaps I should wait to hear back from a potential supervisor first? Finding a supervisor before applying is essential for this program. I also forgot to mention that the other professor taught a class that is directly related to my masters program (they have the same name) and I took this class earlier this year.
    – aspire94
    Commented Oct 27, 2016 at 17:19
  • @aspire94 - If it's easier for you to go in person, go in person. If it's easier to write an email, write an email. If it's easier to ask the Student Disabilities Office for help, ask them for help. There are multiple ways of approaching professors, and you don't need to add to your anxiety levels by trying to figure out which approach is better. Go easy on yourself and choose the method that triggers less anxiety. All methods are fine. Commented Oct 28, 2016 at 1:43

You doubt your lecturers remember your name, but do you think they don't remember you? Maybe a little background info about you (in an email or even in person) would jog their memory?

I was in a similar situation as you, and was really surprised to find that my point of view, which was that I was practically invisible, was not only not true, but the lecturers I asked for references actually had a good impression of me (note: I had performed well in all their respective classes).

Also, even if they don't remember you, that doesn't mean they won't write you good recommendations, especially if you've performed well in their classes.

My advice is to probe (perhaps informally, say after a lecture) a number of your lecturers how they feel about writing you a recommendation, then try to gauge from their responses how likely it is that they will write you a good recommendation, and then finally ask them for actual recommendations in the order of their likelyhood of writing you a good recommendation.

  • Thank you! It's nice to know someone was in a similar situation. This is extremely frightening for me.
    – aspire94
    Commented Oct 27, 2016 at 18:29

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .