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I have been not the most vocal student and wasn't talking to the professors much after class. Much of this was because I was quite shy at the time. I have now graduated and would like to ask for an academic reference. My final grade was quite good, so my position is not that bad. I just wasn't so active in class.

Question : I am asking myself whether there are ways to improve a potential recommendation after having graduated. Like, for example, through email correspondence, or sending the professor a paper I wrote, etc.? Or should this ideally not influence the professor anymore?

What could I do? Or this generally a bad idea?

PS: Note that I am not asking to build a recommendation entirely after graduation, but to improve it somewhat.

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    It is fine to engage in email correspondence with a former instructor, but please do it for the sake of the conversation or collaboration itself, not just to improve the recommendation. On the other hand, it is fine to inform your former instructors of a recent publication. They'll be happy for you. – aparente001 Apr 2 '17 at 18:26
  • Thank you for your answer. I am genuinely interested in the professor and her work, but I would be looking to give them a more accurate impression of me also to improve the letter of recommendation. – George Welder Apr 2 '17 at 19:15
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First of all, although in all cases it would have been better for you to talk to your professors outside of class and cultivate further intellectual/professional relationships with them, how much better depends a lot on the situation. For instance, in my academic field of mathematics, a student at a strong program who quietly does superior work in the most challenging courses available to her is going to get strong to very strong letters irrespective of the personal contact. In other academic fields, the most promising undergraduates will likely have some engagement with the research interests of the faculty, perhaps even to the extent of coauthorship on papers, and missing out on that may be missing out on a lot.

I am asking myself whether there are ways to improve a potential recommendation after having graduated.

It becomes a lot harder to improve your professors' opinions of you after you leave, for the obvious reasons: you have no more necessary points of contact with them, and they are no longer getting paid to teach and interact with you. Some faculty members are very generous with their time, but many faculty members have packed their professional life with so many other activities that they literally don't have the time for more than casual interactions with former undergraduates.

Like, for example, through email correspondence, or sending the professor a paper I wrote, etc.?

You can try both of those things. Sending a paper you wrote that has some connection to the research interests of the professor in question sounds more promising to me than simply trying to raise their esteem via the enthusiasm and erudition of your epistles. (Sorry, I got a little carried away with the alliteration.) As above, a faculty member may not have time to do more than briefly glance at your paper...but even the brief glance of a professional can convince them that you're onto something and improve your letter.

Or should this ideally not influence the professor anymore?

No, you're fully entitled to take further steps to get a better letter. That may be hard to do, but the attempt is fully appropriate. Faculty will probably realize what you're doing (which is also okay...).

  • I disagree that "a student at a strong program who quietly does superior work in the most challenging courses available to her is going to get strong to very strong letters". I like to think I'm at a strong program, and a student who just quietly gets A after A in our graduate courses is going to be in a tough spot when it comes to getting effective letters. As a faculty member, what am I supposed to base my 'strong to very strong letter' on if I don't know the student? Perhaps you mean that such a student will have a strong transcript, but that doesn't mean the letters will be effective. – Tom Church Apr 2 '17 at 23:20
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    @Tom: It looks like we probably need to disagree on this just because we are each relying on our own experience, which is different...noncontradictorily. But okay, I'll play a little bit: if you write a letter reminding everyone that Stanford is one of the top departments in the country and say that Ms. X performed better in courses Y and Z than most of the graduate students...haven't you already made a pretty good argument that she deserves a spot at a top program?... – Pete L. Clark Apr 3 '17 at 2:14
  • ...I was also thinking back to my own situation. I wasn't an especially quiet student, so the undergraduate-leaning faculty knew who I was and knew I was doing well in very challenging courses. But I didn't talk about research questions with any of them, and I didn't even get a letter from the one faculty member I did a reading course with. (And I got into all the programs I applied to.) I mean: how many Stanford undergrads are getting A after A in graduate courses, quietly or otherwise? Maybe it's more than I think. – Pete L. Clark Apr 3 '17 at 2:17

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