Some of my students, in spite of all the dire discussion and lack of full-time or permanent jobs available in higher education, still want to go to graduate school. I do not necessarily see it as my job to either encourage them or discourage them. Graduate school is for those who want to go to graduate school, to spend time deeply involved with the material, to be in an academic setting where the career is secondary to the process. If you go into grad school for a job, or for the money, you are going to have a lot of stuff to go through before you get to that point, and it may not come to you. Don't assume that a Ph.D. gets you a job like mine. It may, but it may not, and whatever happens there are no guarantees. And some of the coolest jobsare not the ones you expect.
The first step for going to grad school is to apply, and I am currently deeply in the writing-letters-for-my-students phase of the year. I thought it might be useful to have some advice for those of you thinking about this and to share some of our ideas about what we tell our students who are thinking about grad school.
First off, I loved graduate school, but not everyone is like me. Some of my students think grad school is a way of extending undergrad experiences. I have sat down with students several times to tell them I don't think they are good fits for an academic grad program (sometimes these are people who are good fits for professional programs, as they are ones who are interested in the utility of their studies, and want to have a job coming out of it -- I teach art history, and these students are sometimes the ones who should go into museum education or arts administration programs -- using their knowledge and learning how to apply it in a clear way along with apprenticeships/internships built into the program). Sometimes I think they might be but their undergraduate grades are not high enough for easy admission. In this case, I advise them to get some other experience (other than school) under their belts. Someone who has either worked at or volunteered at (in a substantial way) a museum or an arts organization has characteristics and a track record that makes her or him stand out when applying to graduate school, and getting a letter of recommendation from someone other than a professor who can speak to responsibility, reliability, drive, and interest can help a great deal to offset academic concerns.
That being said, undergraduate grades can at times be a predictor for graduate performance. These grades (particularly in the major) indicate knowledge in the field, dedication to research and writing components required in a discipline, time management abilities, and wiilingness to push through in the hoop-jumping that is a clear part of graduate school as in any job. And a letter from a professor who has had you in multiple classes is a good component of your application portfolio.
I write letters for anywhere between three and ten students a year. And I am lucky that there aren't more. I can thus talk about individual characteristics of a student. I don't have a generic letter -- each student gets a base letter that is specific to the skills and desires and strengths and concerns I have for him or her. If those concerns are so great that they prevent me from writing a strong letter, I will not agree to write one. I have only once told a student after having written several letters that I would not write another one -- that was someone who seemed to suddenly find it difficult to complete assignments in a timely manner (as far as I could tell this was a response to stress, and that is a problem in grad school -- you have to be able to handle adversity and stress that is potentially beyond anything you experience in undergrad). There was nothing I was able to find out by asking what was causing it (everything was fine, I was told) -- so I had to respond to what was in front of me.
So if I say I will write one, I will write a good one. I will be positive but honest. If you have a B average in my classes, I will not say you are the top student I have ever taught. It is my word and my university's reputation on the line; if I misrepresent you, it is every student who applies to that university in the future that my recommendation affects. I will, however, talk about specific details (papers, projects, interaction with other students, internships, research experiences) that make you particularly desirable as a graduate student in that program.
To help me do this, I ask for at least one month's warning for any letter, and preferably a listing of all the graduate schools to which you are applying, organized by deadline, and a brief description of why you want to apply to a specific school, what program you are applying to, and information about a link or a method of submission of the letter. I strongly prefer an on-line submission, and if necessary I will send a hard-copy one. I will almost never agree to give you a copy of the letter to send yourself. This is because I did that for students early on in my teaching, and one decided not to apply to one of the universities but did need a letter for a different one, and she told me about that by taking the letter out of the (sealed, signed across the seal) envelope, and attaching the open letter to my bulletin board along with a note saying "in case you forgot what you wrote, this will help you write me a letter to X university". It was a confidential letter (positive, but confidential), and I was furious. I wrote the letter, but since then have been really hesitant about handing a sealed letter to a student.
If the letters are to be submitted online, you need to get your application submitted a bit before the deadline because the online submission for letters of recommendation will often not be available to me until after your application is complete. And there will often be technical difficulties. This fall I did not get a letter submitted by the deadline because of this; I hope it is not held against the student. She was annoyed with me (or at least that is the way I read her last email, and she never let me know that the application was complete or anything about how it had been received, and she did not ask for any other letters of recommendation). I am sorry for the difficulty, but I didn't see it as my fault (nor was it hers), and I hope I do hear back from her eventually.
If I ask for a copy of your personal statement it means I want to see your personal statement. It may be because you are applying to do something that is not a clear outgrowth of your undergraduate work, or it may be because I want to be able to write a letter that supports you in a way that builds off your stated interests. What it doesn't mean is that you should send me a copy of your statement a month after the first letter deadlines. The letters I have written by that point are of necessity going to be a bit more generic.
As letters are written individually, the chance is that if you blow off the semester (usually the first semester senior year) it may be reflected in letters I write for you. As you ignore deadlines, stop coming to class, and don't come to meetings that are scheduled, these things reflect on you and may lead me to adjust my evaluation in such categories as "maturity" or "dedication to the field" -- if you show me that you are mature and dedicated to the field, chances are those ratings will be high; if you lead me to question such things, the ratings are almost certain to go down. Sometimes there are extenuating circumstances (health or yourself and your family, financial issues, etc.) but I can only evaluate what is before me, and that is what I base my recommendations on.
Finally, I would like some acknowledgement of my writing the letters. Thank you notes are nice, but not necessary. What is really necessary, however, is an indication of where you got in (or didn't) and what, if any, financial/scholarship/assistantship offers were made. It helps me to know where you go and why. If you decide to not take any graduate school place, even though you have been admitted, I do need to know that, and why you made that decision. If I have written 10-15 letters for you and you don't go to any grad school, then you come back to me the next year with a request for more letters, I need to know what is going on. That you have decided one year not to go to grad school is fine, and it doesn't prevent me from writing letters. But if you can't tell me a reason, it comes across as rather mercurial. It may not be, but again, I can only evaluate you by the information that is in front of me. And that evaluation is what grad schools are asking me to do in my letters of recommendation.
Oh, and one final final thing. If you choose to complain in a letter to the university (such as to the dean, or in the equivalent of an exit interview) how the class you took with me was the worst experience you had as a university student, do not expect that I will not hear about it, or remember it three years later when you want a letter of recommendation to a graduate program. And yes, that has happened. I chose not to write a letter or recommendation for this student, who had only had the one class with me. I said I did not remember her well enough to write that letter of recommendation. I figured it was much better for both of us to leave it at that. In other words, I was lying. I do that, sometimes. But I don't do it in letters of recommendation; in those I stand behind what I write.