What should college students know about Letters of Reference?

As a college student, the time will come when you will need to ask a teacher for a letter of reference: to transfer to another school, to apply to graduate school or for a scholarship, or as part of a job application.

The best person to write such a letter is a full-time professor who is well-known in his area of study. If you don't know a full-time professor, the next best choice would be a part-time instructor or a teaching assistant.

Here is a secret. As you might imagine, college teachers get a lot of requests for letters of recommendation. Most of the time, they will simply take a standard form letter and make minor changes. However, if a teacher likes you, he will take the time to write a more elaborate and more personalized letter.

Your goal should be to make it as easy as possible for your teacher to write you a wonderful letter. Here are some hints.

1. The teacher will have to know more about you than your grades. To help him, prepare a list of the points you would like the letter to highlight, such as a description of your extracurricular activities, your strengths and your goals.

2. Don't wait until the last minute to make your request. Ask for the letter at least a month in advance.

3. Give the professor an envelope that is already addressed (to save him time) and already has a stamp (to show how thoughtful you are).

4. If you have the option of signing a waiver that says that you will not see the letter, do so. Such a letter will carry more weight, as the reader will assume that the opinions are more honest. (Many teachers will show you the letter, anyway, even if you have signed the waiver.)

5. Finally, as soon as the letter has been sent, send the professor a short thank-you note. This is not negotiable.

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