How to Get a Recommendation Letter if You Are Not an ‘A’ Student

Posted by on Apr 24, 2013 in Communicating with Professors, General, General College Success/Responses to Other College Entities | 10 comments

Have an application that requires a recommendation letter? Afraid to ask for it because of your grades? Don’t be… just smartly prep for the conversation :-) .

Dear Student Who Isn’t Acing Classes,

I’m dedicating this post to you.

You are nearing the end of an academic term/year. I know you’ve heard about the critical importance of networking with your profs, getting recommendation letters, etc. You may be letting this suggestion pass you by, but I am going to beg you not to.

You deserve a recommendation letter, even if you didn’t do as well as you would have liked.

Grades are a measurement of a body of work and performance over a limited period of time. Are they important and often reflective of performance? Absolutely. But they do not always tell the entire story. Get your profs to tell more of your story before you leave your course or your college. Here’s how:

-Pick a few classes where you exhibited strong work ethic, but your grades missed the mark. 

Maybe you contributed a ton to class discussion. Maybe you took your prof’s feedback, but couldn’t get past a funky grading scheme. Maybe you studied your ass off, but felt sick on the day of a test and that test brought your grade down a letter. In these situations, your prof could likely have more to say about you than the final outcome.

You’ll have to do some self-inventory here. If your grade happened because of laziness, procrastination, or disinterest, you probably won’t feel comfortable asking your prof to stand up for you. Your prof would likely feel uncomfortable if you did. If this wasn’t the situation, proceed.

-Review your assignments from those classes and make an “I did” list.

Hopefully you’ve saved your work, or at the very least, still have a syllabus. If you don’t, then go get one. Often, a building or department administrative assistant/secretary has a copy of all syllabi.

Take a look at the assignments. Did you have a group project? How did you perform in that project? What did you do? What were your papers about? Did you do speeches or other presentations? Make a list of your “other” outcomes from class. If you were the team leader in a group project, write that down. If you had a unique paper or speech topic, list that, too.

Some other notes: Did you have perfect attendance? Did you always engage in class discussion? Did you show up for class on time? Add this to your list.

-Determine why you need/want the letter and be ready to articulate that.

Are you trying to get a scholarship? (Some are not GPA-based.) Are you trying to gain entry into a certain program? Do you want a general letter to have on hand for future employment opportunities? Your profs will need to know what type of letter you need and for whom. Have all of that information at the ready.

-Schedule a sit-down with your professors (past or present) and make the request.

Once you’ve determined possible classes where your actions spoke louder than your final grade–and you have tangible documentation of those actions–it’s time to make an appointment with profs. I prefer this conversation going down face-to-face, but e-mail is an option (though not ideal).

I would start by saying, “I was wondering if you would write a recommendation letter for me. I didn’t ace your class, but I definitely learned a lot from my experience. My final grade could have been better, but I did a number of other things that were positive. I can share what some of those things are. I understand you may have to decide if you feel comfortable supporting my request.”

Now, refer to your list of things you felt went well in class: “I always enjoyed the discussions in our class and appreciated earning all of the possible participation points.” 

You can even discuss some specifics about what you learned after the fact and changes you’ve made: “My paper on the Yanomamo tribe taught me how to write a thesis statement and carry a topic through in a focused way. I lost points on that paper because my sources were weak. I realized I needed to work more closely with a librarian, and in my next paper, I did get help.”

-Resist the request to write the letter yourself.

My feelings here may not be popular. A recommendation letter is supposed to be someone else’s perception of you in their own words. If you are writing your own perceptions of you and the prof is simply signing off, this doesn’t seem very authentic. Calling out details of why you think you deserve the letter is fine, but it’s another thing to undertake the task.

If your professor says, “Why don’t you just write what you want and I’ll sign it?”, I would reply, “I understand you must be very busy. I would appreciate your words because I can learn from what you have to say. If this is not the right time to make this request, no problem.” Then move on to another professor.

Hopefully your professor will step up and you’ll be golden. From there, have a clear follow-up plan. Arm your prof with details they need for the letter i.e., whether you need a specific addressee or just something general. Make any deadlines clear (a two week lead time, at least), and discuss how the prof can return the letter to you (E-mail? In person? Or does the letter need to be sent somewhere?).

A student recently told me they were in a class where the prof was incomprehensible. Students complained and grades suffered. I know that this student works very hard. Like I said, sometimes grades just don’t tell the whole story.

You have abilities and qualities that can expand your story. You just need support in telling it.


Feel free to stop here or read on to see an example of a letter that I would write for a student without an ideal grade:

Dear ____________,

I am writing this letter to support Student in his/her quest for entry into X program.

I worked with Student during winter 2013 in my 200-level Interpersonal Communication course. In this course, I have unique opportunities to assess students’ face-to-face and online communication. In class, Student heartily contributed to all of our discussions. I could always count on Student to appropriately engage and advance conversations. Student supported and encouraged others’ ideas, which I found impressive, particularly since this is important practice for successfully communicating in outside environments.

In the required discussion forums, Student aptly and accurately analyzed personal experiences in tandem with the theories we were studying. I noticed that Student always replied to other students’ posts, acknowledging their thoughts and appropriately adding his/her own. This offered me a glimpse into Student’s ability to interpersonally communicate in an online medium, and I felt that Student, once again, exhibited keen insights and above-average skill.

For our major paper, Student undertook the topic of how social media affects college students–this was after Student’s own three-day social media/texting fast. Student conveyed thoughts in a focused manner and showed developing information literacy skills.

As you know, grades do not always give the full picture of a student’s ability. I definitely believe this to be the case with Student. Student can tell you about the outcome and changes made as a result. Reflecting on how one can improve and then taking action is an important skill. This quality just adds to Student’s positive attributes that I hope you will consider.

If I can answer other questions about my time working with Student, I would be glad to have that conversation.








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