My biggest university screw-up was the way I almost didn’t make it into graduate school.
I failed to look into the requirements until I was nearly done my undergraduate degree. As a result, I didn’t realize how competitive the application process would be or plan ahead accordingly. My GPA was only just barely high enough to be considered, but even worse, I had failed to anticipate the need for strong letters from faculty recommending me for the program. I had been the sort of student who sat at the back of the class. I never felt the need to ask questions after the lecture or see the professor during office hours. Even if I did well in a course, the instructor may never have had a chance to link my face with my name. As a result, the only professor I had gotten to know was someone I had worked with on a research project. This work (specifically, the resulting publication) ended up being a crucial piece to help me gain admission to the Master’s program, but I was also fortunate that two other professors were willing to meet me and subsequently write me letters of reference. They probably hadn’t remembered me from their courses, but a copy of an old essay to which they had awarded a high grade helped me gain their support.
In graduate school, reference letters remain a special sort of capital or currency. They help win actual currency through awards and scholarship competitions, and can secure valuable jobs. I’ve found that asking for such letters from faculty can be a stressful experience, but being rejected isn’t the worst that can happen. A faculty member politely declining to write you a letter is a whole lot better than a letter that may work against you. If your application is unsuccessful, you will likely never know if it was because one of your letters gave the committee pause. This is why it’s so important to establish and maintain relationships with faculty whose letters will carry weight and present you in a positive light. In a PhD program, gathering letters of reference becomes an annual or bi-annual event as award deadlines come and go. Having professors you can call upon recurrently makes the process easier, and ideally, these faculty members will retain a saved copy of your reference letter that they can simply update as the need arises.