Mentoring is different from advising. An advisor may focus on checking off requirements, but a mentor relates to the student and makes a commitment to helping the student develop academically and professionally. An effective mentor will provide the student with resources and offer encouragement and support. This guide will outline a few best practices for mentoring.

The relationship between mentor and student depends on open communication and a commitment to the relationship from both parties, which requires time and energy.

Engage Students in Ongoing Conversations

"The message my mentor sent to me was that I had value enough for her to spend time with me."
"The most important thing my mentor did was spend time talking with me and taking an interest in things interesting to me."
  • When time permits, ask about their courses or current research.
  • Let students know they're welcome to talk with you during your office hours. Indicate other ways your students can maintain contact with you as well as your preferences (email, phone, etc.).
  • Stay in touch with the students you mentor at least once each semester. Although it's ultimately the students' responsibility to initiate contact with you, it may make a difference if you contact those students who are becoming remote.
  • Consider inviting students to coffee so that discussions can take place in more informal settings and away from the distractions of the office.
  • Students may want to discuss certain nonacademic as well as academic issues as they arise. It's helpful for them to know they can come to you and that you'll care. Being open and approachable is particularly important when students are shy or come from a different cultural background.
  • Assist students in finding creative solutions to issues that arise.
  • If you feel that students can benefit from professional counseling, suggest available campus resources such as the Health Center's Counseling and Psychological Services.

Direct Scholarly Research Activities

  • Assist students with designing a research proposal or action plan.
  • Help students prepare a reasonable timeline and suggest that students set small, achievable goals (benchmarks) throughout research.
  • Meet regularly with students to discuss progress on research and assess work toward goals.
  • Direct students to appropriate background literature, introducing them to the literature in the field. Encourage students to meet with the subject librarian in your field.
  • Teach students to break large tasks into smaller ones to avoid being overwhelmed by the nature of school/research work.

Provide Constructive and Supportive Feedback

"I wrote several drafts before he felt I had begun to make a cogent argument and, as painful as that was, I would not have written the honors thesis that I did without receiving strong, if just criticism, but in a compassionate way."
"Honest advice – given as gently as possible – is something all of us students need."
  • Focus on specific areas for development and provide a solution or suggestion.
  • Prioritize feedback by focusing on two or three specific areas of improvement, rather than marking every area that needs improvement.
  • Tailor your feedback to the student.
  • Be sure to provide feedback on students' work in a timely manner. A delay in responding to their research can hinder their progress.
  • Temper criticisms with praise when it is deserved. Remind students that you are holding them to high standards so as to help them improve.
  • If students fall behind in their research, do not automatically assume this reflects a lack of commitment. Talk with them to see what is going on. Perhaps they are exhausted, are unclear about what they are supposed to do next, or maybe dislike the project they are participating in or the people they are researching with.

Treat Students with Respect

"She treated me and her other students with respect – respect for our opinions, our independence, and our visions of what we wanted to get from school."
"It sounds silly but the best thing my mentor did for me was to actually sit down and listen to what I had to say."
  • Give students your full attention when talking with them. Minimize interruptions during your meetings so they can experience more personalized time.
  • Develop a system for remembering previous conversations with students and review those notes prior to scheduled meetings.
  • Tell students what you learn from them. This will help them understand that the relationship is not only mutually beneficial, but also a positive relationship that you enjoy investing in.
  • Acknowledge the skills and experience students bring with them to school.

Provide Encouragement and Support

"My professors encouraged me both to publish my work and to participate in conferences. Without their encouragement, I may not have made the effort to accomplish these things."
  • Encourage students to discuss their ideas, even those ideas students might fear are naïve or "crazy."
  • Work with students to set specific goals and measures of accomplishment. For example, help students set reasonable writing deadlines that ensure successful completion of a journal article or research paper.
  • Give students enough space to be creative. Don't rush in too quickly with interpretations of data or solutions to problems. By doing this, you prepare your trainees to work through projects independently and you benefit from their insights and creativity.
  • Encourage students to try new techniques and to expand their skills.
  • Let students know it's okay to make mistakes. Remind them how much we learn from our failures.
  • Share a challenging experience you had and what you learned from it.

Help Students Professionalize and Foster Networks

  • Recognize that your reputation opens doors for those associated with you, and the connections are not likely to be made without your involvement. Take steps to facilitate students' professional development.
  • Create opportunities for students to demonstrate their competencies. Take them to meetings with you and introduce them to your colleagues.
  • Encourage students to attend professional meetings with you and make presentations when they are ready.
  • If you can't provide something students need, suggest other people who might be of assistance: other UNL faculty, graduate students, alumni, departmental staff, retired faculty, and faculty from other universities.
  • Show students how to write publishable scientific papers and successful grant proposals.
  • Teach them the technical skills needed to be an effective researcher. Spend time explaining why you do the things you do.

Help Prepare Students for Graduate School or the Job Market

  • Encourage your students to persist through the bachelor's level and into doctoral education.
  • Help your students transition from being an undergraduate to a member of the workforce.
  • Discuss the opportunities and the demands a graduate education provides for the student.
  • Help students develop a broader view of faculty roles and responsibilities.
  • Discuss the students' career paths and the specific challenges they have faced and may face in the future.
  • Encourage students to think about and discuss their goals and career objectives.
  • Help students evaluate graduate schools and programs, and introduce students to pertinent sources of information.
  • Advise students on their Statement of Purpose. Help students think about challenges in research and how they overcame them, and help students frame the Statement in terms of future goals, rather than writing a personal narrative.
  • Have an in-depth discussion about how the graduate school application process works.

Look Out for Students' Interests

"My mentor allowed my tasks to grow along with me, offering me appropriate opportunities and challenges at each stage of my education."
  • Let students know from the beginning that you want them to succeed.
  • Create opportunities for students to demonstrate their competencies. For instance, take your students to important meetings and conferences so they can gain some visibility. Encourage them to make presentations at these venues.
  • Be an advocate for students whenever appropriate.
  • Promote students' work within and outside your department.
Adapted with permission from the University of Michigan's How to Mentor Graduate Students: A Guide for Faculty in a Diverse University,Horace H. Rackham School of Graduate Studies, University of Michigan, 2002

Tips on Writing Letters of Recommendation

Students who have researched with you or taken classes from you and who have had a positive experience – in terms of what they have learned, or the work they have produced – are likely to come to you for a letter of recommendation. Here are a few tips for putting together an effective letter for your students:

Gathering information for writing an effective letter

Meet with the student

Even if you know a student very well, the process of writing an effective letter can be facilitated by meeting with the student, learning more about the student's goals, and acquiring more information about the student.

Request Written Materials

Ask the student to bring copies of the following to the meeting:

  • A cover letter that includes:
    1. The name of the program the student is applying to.
    2. Specific professors the student is interested in working with at the institution.
    3. When the recommendation is due, and an addressed envelope if the recommendation is to be mailed.
  • A resume or curriculum vitae.
  • Graded work the student completed under your direction.
  • A copy of the Statement of Purpose, tailored to the institution.
  • A transcript.
  • Any literature that describes the fellowship or program for which the student is applying; any specific recommendation forms or questionnaires the letter writer is to complete.

The contents of a letter of recommendation

A letter of recommendation indicates your support of a candidate. The letter includes a well-supported evaluation of the candidate's abilities, providing evidence that the selection committee can use to make its decision.

If possible, write a letter as soon after you have taught a student, while your impressions are still vivid and fresh. You might consider encouraging students to make their requests early, rather than waiting until senior year or beyond. These early letters can be placed in the students' Career Center files, as well as maintained in your own files for future reference.

A letter of recommendation plays a number of roles in a candidate's application to graduate school:

  • Supports the candidate. If a student asks you for a letter of recommendation and you find that you cannot write a positive letter, meet with the student to encourage him or her to seek a more appropriate reference.
  • Provides evaluation and evidence of a candidate's abilities. A well-documented evaluation of a candidate's abilities gives the selection committee a fuller picture of the candidate and helps them make their decision. If the candidate has any weaknesses in his or her application, the letter of recommendation can address the weaknesses frankly. Talk with the candidate about whether you may share details about what caused the weaknesses.
  • Documents your connection with candidate. Include information on how you know the student. If you taught the student, identify which classes the student took from you, how many students were in the class, and how many papers the student wrote. Be sure to include how long you've known the candidate and detail any other capacities in which you've interacted with the student.
    1. When describing a candidate's intellectual abilities, provide concrete examples. Avoid words of empty praise.
    2. Use a similar approach when describing a candidate's character. Use specific examples of particular traits you've seen in the candidate and when you've seen them.
  • Addresses the purpose of the letter. Typically, a letter addresses both the scholarly abilities of a candidate and his or her personal character. A letter for a candidate for graduate school will focus primarily on scholarly abilities, while a letter for a non-academic job will offer a broader perspective of a candidate. These letters should include extracurricular activities and work experience. For fellowship applications, be sure to address the particular project, its validity, and its feasibility (this includes whether it can be completed within the proposed time frame). Give attention to the language from the fellowship announcement, and use phrases from the announcement to support your evaluation of the project.
  • Summarize the letter. After you've offered your examples, summarize your support of the student for the specific position.

If beginning the letter is challenging, ask colleagues if they'd share with you redacted letters that they have written. By reading a few examples, you'll be able to see what is effective in a letter of recommendation.

Adapted from the President and Fellows of Harvard College, copyright © 2002-2004.