It is tough to be an undergraduate. You get told all the time what to do, where to be, what to study. Then, just when you get really interested in something, you have to move on. In some ways being an undergraduate is just like being in high school because other people tell you how to live your life and what to study.
So, isn’t it a huge shock to find out there is actually another agenda that you must fulfill, something you may not be told to do ever? Well, there are lots of other things to do, but there is one that is essential: you must get to know three professors well enough so they will write you letters of recommendation. This is not something you can put off. You must have this in mind from the day you set foot on campus, the day you walk in through the Sallyport, or whatever ritual for matriculation your college or university has.
The reason you must get to know three professors is that letters of recommendation usually are requested in groups of three. The reason you must get started right away is that summer work possibilities, research opportunities, and jobs do not wait for graduation. Besides, it is hard to get to know three professors well enough for a letter. So how do you do it? You must take some initiative. You must focus.
A great way to start out is to take a freshman seminar. These courses typically have fewer than 15 students, so there is a chance to get to know the teacher. Be sure to participate in the class, even if you are very shy. Be sure to get there early, or stay late, so you have some chance of informal contact with the teacher. Your freshman seminar teacher will be one of your letter writers, so choose for that seminar a topic somewhat close to what you might want to study, if possible.
Let the person know at the end of the semester that you might need a letter in the future, and hope you can keep in touch. It would not hurt at this point to send them a resume. Then keep in touch. Check out the person’s academic page. If she gives a talk somewhere on campus, go to it. Get there early and sit in the front. Ask a question, or at least get seen. Take another course from that person. Cultivating letter writers is about focus, not breadth.
There may be someone in your dorm or living environment (colleges at Rice, for example) that can write a letter. Get to know that person too. If there are many, pick one to get to know best. Eat with them if possible and ask them about their research.
The letter writer does not have to be a professor, though at least one of them should be. A graduate student, or postdoc can also serve. For most things it should be someone in the academic track of the university.
OK, you are thinking, that’s two letters, one from someone at my dorm, and one from a freshman seminar. You may not be able to do either of these at a big university. What else? You can ask the professor of your smallest class, but early on, even that class may be large. You should choose a letter writer and see to it that person gets to know you. Go to office hours. Sit up front. Take multiple classes from the same person, if possible. Understand that doing these things is essential because you need that letter.
Your adviser, a sponsor of a club or activity you are in are other ways of finding the letter writers. The main point is that you must be focused on this from day one.
Of course, the best letter writer of all is your research mentor once you have joined a research lab. You should do this as soon as you can carve 10 hours or so out of your week for research credit, ideally in your very first year. But that is a topic for another entry.