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What Would Your Professors Say About You?

Students: Help your professors write your letters of recommendation

Guest Blog Post by Joan T. Bihun, Ph.D.


Dr. Joan T. Bihun

During the last couple of weeks of the fall semester (once spring registration opens), I typically hear a "feeding frenzy" of sorts as students discuss whose class to take and whose not to. "Oh, don't take ...; I heard he’s awful!" or "… gives a lot of worksheets and study guides—take her." And so on. In one class their highly vocal and animated evaluations were at a fever pitch. I wondered: Were they just comfortable enough around me to discuss these issues? Did they forget I was there?

I asked these students, "Do you ever stop to think what your professors would say about you? About what kind of student you are?" The group quieted pretty quickly, and I tried to engage them in this discussion a bit more. Most don't realize we may also form opinions of them. And it matters! For example: At the end of each Fall semester I am approached by many students who request an academic letter of reference for graduate programs, law school, jobs, etc.

Some students think a letter of recommendation just says "Student X received an A in my course." They don’t realize that in these letters we discuss what type of students they are in (and out of) class, what skills they have—not the grade they earned. The grade they earned is clearly stated on their transcript and I spend little to no time reiterating that information.

Dear students: Here are some questions you can ask yourselves about your behavior, along with possible thoughts instructors may have about them. I hope they give you some insight and perspective on what we are thinking when we sit down to write these letters—and even when we interact with you in and out of class.

QUESTION: “Besides the grade I earn in this instructor’s course, what would my professor say about the way I approach this class?"

What We Might Think: You care and are trying to make a good impression. You’re also skilled at perspective taking.

QUESTION: “Do I continue to come to class regularly after I get a low grade on the first assignment?”

WWMT: You don’t avoid things when the going gets tough. You show a growth mindset, or the belief that you can always learn more/do better than your initial performance.

QUESTION: “Do I stop coming to class when I get a high grade on the first assignment?”

WWMT: You don’t value or respect me, the class, or the discussions we have. You have better things to do with your time and figure your can do just as well on your own. It’s not important for you to contribute.

QUESTION: “Do I talk with my teacher if I’ve been absent from class quite a bit?”

WWMT: Why aren’t you here? Do you bail when the going gets rough? Is there another reason for both missing class and not performing well (illness; family issues; work issues, a very demanding course schedule, etc). I need to keep guessing if you don’t fill in the blanks. Would you do this on the job, too? When you make the point to meet with me, the mystery uncovered, and your conscientiousness and maturity shine through.

QUESTION: “Do I listen attentively in class and take part in discussions?”

WWMT: You are processing the material we’re discussing, thinking critically about it, and contributing to others’ education.

QUESTION: “Do I text and surf the web a lot during class?”

WWMT: Believe me, even if I don’t say anything directly to you, I notice this! You have a hard time focusing your attention, which could prevent deep learning. You’re just trying to hear enough to “get by” and don’t engage with the material.

QUESTION: “Do I willingly work with others when it was time to ‘pair up’ or get into groups even if I’m a bit introverted?”

WWMT: Even if you’re typically quiet, you’re willing to move out of your comfort zone to work as part of a team. You’re approachable. However, I do notice when you walk out of class (even big lectures) when it comes time for these activities. You may not work well with others or you may have difficulty with teamwork.

QUESTION: “If and when I struggle in class, do I meet with my instructor promptly to ask for help?”

WWMT: Have a growth mindset. You can learn any job. You are not buying into the idea that you’re “just not good at _______.” You have persistence and will work to master material even when that takes much effort. If you wait until the end of the semester to come in and ask for help, it shows that you want others to fix things for you.

These aren’t the only possible questions, but you get the idea.

Some of the strongest letters I have written for students who have subsequently been accepted into graduate programs have been for those who did NOT receive an A in a course. And they’re surprisingly easy to write, because their character and skills are impressive. Alternatively, some of the more mediocre letters I have written have been for students who earned As in my class. I didn’t know them outside of seeing their names on my roster, or they made an unfavorable impression regardless of doing decent work.

Bottom line: It’s not all about the grade. Whether you earn an A or C, ask for a recommendation letter or not, each semester I consider myself in a relationship with you. We’ll at least be co-workers (or maybe boss/employee) for the next 15 weeks. Even if mine is not your favorite class, I sure want you to be able to take away something meaningful from it. You make as much of an impression on your instructors us as we make on you.


Joan T. Bihun received her Ph.D. in developmental psychology from Wayne State University. She is currently an assistant professor, clinical teaching track, at the University of Colorado Denver. She is a 2013 winner of a Teaching Excellence Award from the Society for Teaching of Psychology (Division 2 of APA). Her interests include developing experiential learning components to college courses, and volunteering as a math and reading tutor in the public school system. She has served as an Advanced Placement Test reader for Psychology for the Educational Testing System (a lot more fun than it sounds!).

Mitch Handelsman is a professor of psychology at the University of Colorado Denver. His most recent book is a collaboration with pioneering musician Charlie Burrell on Burrell’s autobiography. Mitch is also the co-author (with Sharon Anderson) of Ethics for Psychotherapists and Counselors: A Proactive Approach (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), and an associate editor of the two-volume APA Handbook of Ethics in Psychology (American Psychological Association, 2012).

© 2015 Mitchell M. Handelsman. All Rights Reserved

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