If you are applying for graduate school, a professional school (medicine, dentistry etc.) or even a job in your field of study upon graduation, you will need letters of recommendation/reference. Especially in an academic setting, these letters are a critical factor in the decision process. Strong letters of recommendation from a couple of your professors can weigh heavily in your favour.
So how do you go about getting them? Get to know a couple of profs well. To achieve this, you need to start early and put in some time and effort.
Asking a professor that taught you, and 69 of your peers, two years ago is certainly not the way. Unless you really stood out in class or in tutorials, the chance of them remembering you, even if you were an “A” student, is slim. I can attest to this first hand, as I recently had five former students contact me under exactly these conditions.
The problem is that although the majority of professors, myself included, want to help their students, they can’t effectively help under these circumstances. The purpose of a letter of recommendation is to provide some specific information and insight about a candidate, their achievements and their accomplishments that can’t be found elsewhere. This requires specific knowledge and experience working with and observing the candidate. Without such knowledge, what results is a general and uninspiring recommendation indicating that you were studious and received good marks - period. In most cases, professors will attempt to politely decline providing a reference given that they know it will only be general.
So how can you get to know some of your profs and get them to know you? You need to put yourself in a position where you are interacting with them.
The most common and obvious approach is to do a research project or thesis with a professor as one of your later year course requirements. This I highly recommend and it will certainly result in a strong and specific recommendation (assuming you put in the effort).
So what else can you do, especially with respect to a second, non-project associated professor teaching a large class? Do something special.
Being an active participant in class and especially in prof-led tutorials (which many are not), both answering posed questions and asking insightful ones is an approach that shows your involved, thinking and doing the homework. This could be enough, but not usually. You need to step up your interaction outside of class. The means are consistent with the principles underlying networking and mentoring which include providing value and assistance (solicited and especially unsolicited) as well as accepting advice, while keeping in regular communication (in person as well as by phone or e-mail even tweets - whatever works for the two of you). See if there is an opportunity to volunteer in the professor’s lab, participate in a study, serve as a teaching assistant, or do a summer internship. Could the professor use some assistance doing some background research for a paper/presentation/lecture, conducting a survey, following the trends, news and recent reports in a related field, or reviewing the market/competitive landscape? When you come across an interesting article or book, tried some new software or app, or learned something in another class, even a teaching method/tool that could be of value to pass along?
Increasing your interaction with one or two professors, outside a research project/thesis, will provide them the insight to write a strong and specific recommendation. However, this requires significant time and effort, so develop a plan and get started early.
Some good articles on recommendation letters are:
and an article on networking:
Thoughts and links to items concerned with education and learning.