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Relationships with Instructors Key to Post-Grad Success

“Building a strong relationship with instructors gives them the knowledge to write a recommendation that brings out the student’s strengths”

As you graduate and leave behind the exams and due dates of student life, don’t make the mistake of neglecting the relationships you have built with your instructors. Not only can instructors be excellent mentors and good friends, but they can also provide professional recommendations essential to success in higher education that dream job.

The form of a professional recommendation can vary from a simple phone conversation between your reference and a potential employer to an official letter of recommendation accompanying an application. Letters of recommendation are often required with applications to professional or graduate program or scholarships.

The key to a quality reference is the strength of your relationship with your instructor. Building a relationship with professors begins early in your academic career and can involve a significant time commitment, but the rewards of such efforts are immense.

“Talk with your professors.  Just stop by and have a conversation,” Bryan Benz, a biology professor at Umpqua Community College, says. “I like to think that most of us are teaching, in part, because we enjoy interacting with the students.  I enjoy having students stop by to ask questions about the class materials, but I also enjoy when a student stops by for advice.”

Some students feel shy or awkward about engaging with professors. Often a good way to start a conversation with an instructor is to attend their office hours with a good question regarding the course content or assignments. But don’t limit the interaction to course work. Instructors in the field a student is interested in pursuing can offer an insider’s perspective on career development, such as how to succeed, or even just encouragement on the long road of higher education.

“The majority of professors have gone down the academic road and have life experiences which can be of benefit to helping a student plan their pathway,” Benz says.

Building a strong relationship with instructors gives them the knowledge to write a recommendation that brings out the student’s strengths beyond just academic performance. Those relationships can also help professors better guide students about transfer schools, educational paths and career options.  “Before I write a reference letter, I like to have a conversation with a student to talk about their goals and how their personal life might contribute to their future success,” Benz says.

Joseph Villa, PhD, a chemistry professor at UCC, shared a similar sentiment. “When I write a letter of recommendation for students I like to write more than simply who the student is in the classroom. I don’t want the letter to simply present information that is already found in their transcript or resume. I want to be able to tell a unique story about the student as a friend, a leader, a citizen or a humanitarian.”

Along with a strong relationship with your reference, the other key to a great professional recommendation is demonstrating your character, commitment and abilities in a way that sets you apart. Academic performance and good grades are important, but students focused only on earning an A and little else don’t stand out like a student who demonstrates genuine interest and engagement with a course content.

Most professors and scholarship boards understand that students who demonstrate true desire to learn often excel more in the long run. “I like to see some motivation on the part of the student. Grades are great, but I have written references for students who did not have outstanding marks, but they showed that they were putting forth an effort in class,” Benz says. “The student’s effort can be demonstrated by their participation in class, the types of questions they ask about the material being learned, or about the field of study they wish to pursue. I also look at the professionalism of the student and how they interact with their peers and their professors.”

Some students worry that if they don’t have perfect grades asking for a letter from their instructor may not be worthwhile. However, a letter of recommendation from a professor in a course where a student struggled may be the best way to provide an explanation for the poor academic performance, especially when the student demonstrated consistent, concerted effort in a course they found difficult.

However, students should not expect a recommendation letter to compensate for poor academic performance. “I have been honest in a letter of recommendation,” Villa says. “I wrote a letter on behalf of a student whom I described as a work in progress. I was also upfront with the student and told them before I wrote the letter that I would give an honest assessment and point out their strengths, but that I would also indicate areas where they were working to improve.”

Another key to a good reference is requesting a letter in a professional and respectful manner. Hasty, careless or short-notice requests will likely result in a weaker recommendation (or no recommendation at all). It is a good idea to request a letter at least two weeks before it is needed. This is especially true during busy times such as finals week or the beginning of the term. It is also helpful to follow up a few days before the letter is due to remind references in case they have not submitted the letter yet.

Often references may want to discuss the letter or your future plans before writing a letter. This is especially true if it has been a while since you were in touch with your reference. In these situation sit is helpful to clearly reintroduce yourself and explain the course you took and something to help spark your instructor’s memory such as a report or project.

Students who haven’t engaged with the professor writing the recommendation in a couple years may be asked to commit to a phone call or visit with the professor. “I recently wrote a reference letter for a former student who was great in my class, but it had been a year or two since I had seen them,” Benz says.  “In this situation, I asked the student to come in and talk with me to discuss how their goals had changed over time and to see how they were pursuing their dream.”

Transcripts only tell admissions committees and potential employers so much about your ability to remember course material and produce it on exams. Professional references and letters or recommendation can demonstrate that you have the personal character, communication skills and capabilities vital to success after college.

“I have a piece of advice that I often give to students that comes from author Drew Dudley,” Villa says. “Dudley said that you should work incredibly hard to make your grades extraordinary, but you should work twice as hard to make sure they are the least impressive thing about you.”

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