AskingBy Michael L. Tan
Philippine Daily Inquirer
It’s the end of the school year again, when administrators, parents and students are driven to the edge of sanity. It’s not just the preparations for graduation but all the deadlines and paperwork as well: exams, term papers, grades, clearances and recommendations.
I thought I’d do a practical column today to tip students on how they can make life easier for everyone when they make their requests, whether for an interview as they rush their term papers or thesis, a recommendation letter for work, graduate school or a professional school.
But before all that, let me respond to another kind of request. With the new school year coming in, UP gets many students who have passed the entrance exams and who come to visit the campus, often with their parents or in groups. It’s always heartwarming watching them as they move around, and pose for wacky and serious photos. I’ve seen how excited young preschool kids get as they anticipate going to “big school,” so I can imagine that with university, the euphoria is multiplied many times over—as are the anxieties of parents.
Over at UP Diliman, my College of Social Sciences and Philosophy (CSSP) is holding an open house tomorrow, Saturday, from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. at Palma Hall (more popularly known as “AS Building”) for those who passed the entrance exam and are coming in as majors in our college: Anthropology, Geography, History, Linguistics, Political Science, Philosophy, Psychology and Sociology.
We will have a forum at Room 400 where students and parents can ask all they want to ask about academics, finances, security, even food. There will be a tour as well of our premises, which has expanded way beyond Palma Hall.
Note that attendance at this open house is not required. We have orientation activities scheduled in June, but we wanted to have an earlier preview for those who can’t wait to start their lives as “Isko” and “Iska” (iskolar ng bayan).
Also note that this open house is only for those who did qualify through UPCAT. UP, the Diliman campus in particular, has very limited quotas so appeals for special consideration would be futile. The only advice I can give is that their children should study hard at whichever campus they’re in to get grades high enough to transfer into UP Diliman next year.
Letters of recommendation
Let’s move on now and handle the art of making other requests, which I’ll do in the form of short “tips.”
I’ll start with the letters of recommendation. First and foremost, learn to ask, and not to demand. You come through as being demanding when you ask for the recommendation the day before the deadline. You’re also demanding if you come with a prepared letter of recommendation praising yourself with flowery hyperboles. A sample from real life: “She was superior in everything she did, surpassed all her classmates in all fields and efforts and endeavors, all the time and much more.” I was kind and told the student I couldn’t do the letter, but was tempted to write one which would have mentioned her delusions of grandeur.
Second, observe some formality. The worst request I ever got was one scribbled on a one-fourth sheet of paper, in bad handwriting and with a request: “Sir I need a recommendation school for UP, Ateneo and UE med schools. Can I pick them up next week?” She signed her name but there was nothing else, no details about which office or officer to address the recommendation letter to. Neither did she have her contact information, something which happens quite often these days with student requests. (The e-mail generation is more prone to omitting the information, having grown used to an e-mail address being automatically inserted.)
Third, furnish as much information as you can about yourself to help with the recommendation letter. Those of us who process graduate and professional school applications know very well that a professor who sends a letter with only two or three lines, even if it says “highly recommend,” isn’t really that impressed with the student. Give your professor information he or she can use for the recommendation—for example, courses you took and the grades you got. Teachers always remember the best and worst of their students so if you’re in between, try to jog memories with the added information. One smart student I had taught many years ago and now living in Canada, e-mailed me a photo of herself from her student days, together with two friends who had also been my students.
Let’s get on to requests for interviews for term papers and theses, or sometimes just for advice on academics or work. Remember, with these requests you are asking for more time from the professor, so you need to be more convincing. Many professors, myself included, get very frustrated with fellow professors who assign students to go and interview another professor, as if we had all the time in the world. There’s a matter of fairness here: our primary obligation is to the students enrolled in our classes so the time used for interviews is time taken away from the classes assigned to us.
Two of the tips above for letters of recommendation still hold: don’t be demanding and observe some formality. In addition, I have three more important tips.
First, explain why an interview is so important for your paper or thesis. Saying your professor assigned you to do the interview is not enough. You have to clearly explain what your interest is, what research you’ve done, and then zero in on the professor’s expertise and why it’s important to get his or her views. I like it when students mention specific articles I’ve done in journals or in the Inquirer and have particular questions ready, reflecting they’ve truly read and reflected on the articles.
Second, find ways to make the interview less of a chore. In your request, send some of the questions you have in mind so the professor can prepare additional information, maybe even refer you to other sources of information. You might want to suggest the option of getting the answers in written form, through e-mail. (I prefer this option, because then I don’t get misquoted, and can answer the questions on my own time.)
Third, prepare well for the interview. Bad questions elicit half-hearted answers and the professor will find ways to cut it short. Good questions get the professors to open up, and the interview might extend far beyond the scheduled time. I’ve found myself telling good student interviewers to come back to clarify answers, or to ask new questions.
Finally, and so very important, learn to say thank you, not just after the interview but also through a note, later, with some information on how the interview helped to shed new light. If the professor contributed substantially, sending a copy of your term paper or thesis is also a gracious gesture. Who knows? When the time comes that you need a letter of recommendation, that report might be what the professor remembers of you, and could mean a strong letter in your behalf.
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