College Graduation Reference Confidential

Not for graduating seniors only.

Posted Apr 06, 2017

April is the cruelest month and it’s not just because of the winter-into-spring transitional weather that Eliot was writing about. For college students, especially seniors, their time in Eden (campus life) will soon be over. The good news: Many soon-to-graduate seniors have a plan for what’s next: They have interviewed and landed a job or they may have applied to graduate school in psychology or some other field and been admitted somewhere for the fall.

But other students—and there are many others—are unsure about what’s next for them. That’s ok. Although the rapid appearance of the real world (again, they will be leaving the sort-of-Eden that is the college campus) can be a little stressful, there are important steps to be taken before the magic march across the stage to receive a diploma. These students—maybe you or someone, you son, daughter, friend, relative—need a plan, one that takes effect before May. Hear me out.

For students who are not sure what’s next but have not asked faculty members or college administrators if they are willing to serve as references, now is the time. Once the calendar turns, faculty members often disappear from campus for the summer and administrative thoughts turn to the incoming class and the next cohort of rising seniors (i.e., current juniors). It’s not that they don’t want to help past seniors, it’s that there is a good chance they will forget you. That’s right: At this moment you (or your child or a friend) are a known quantity—you are in a class, you are an advisee, you work in a campus job, etc.—but all of that will change once you don your mortarboard and graduation gown. You move out (literally and figuratively) and someone else moves in.

Now is the time to ask your academic and administrative acquaintances if they are willing to serve as a reference in the future. Not 3 or 6 months from now or—and this happens all the time to me and to my colleagues—3 or even 5 years after you have graduated. To students, a professor remains salient in memory; alas, to professors, most students are forgotten—not because we want to forget you—but because dozens, even hundreds, of other faces have replaced you. So, ask nowplan nownot later.

If you have a resume (and as a graduating senior, you should—if not, get to your campus career center on the double and ask for guidance drafting one), share it with your references. You might ask them to write a generic letter now, one that can be saved (on their hard-drive) for future editing when you know what you are doing in terms of post-graduate career or education. Trust me: If you come back in a year or two, this will be much harder to do and your referees may even decline to write a letter on your behalf because they can’t remember much to say except you took a class and earned a grade of B+ in it—that’s not a recommendation, that’s a fact that is not news, as you will be submitting a copy of your college transcript to jobs or grad schools. You want a letter of recommendation to contain descriptive, helpful observations about your and your character.

My advice, then, is to line up references now, not later (college sophomores and juniors should be thinking along these lines as well—now, not later). And seniors who are graduating should now be thinking about not only references from their college days, but those people who can advocate for them in the future. Many students will take what we might call short-term jobs their first year or so out of college—besides doing well in whatever such a job turns out to be, you should also be cultivating your supervisor there to serve as a reference.

So, in a nutshell, you need a plan for who can help you move forward into your next “thing”, whether that’s work, Teach for America, graduate or professional school, the Peace Corps—whatever. And you need to think about references for your future as you move into your future.

Good luck.