Admissions Committees have two ways to get to know the real you: your essays, and your letters of recommendation. (Three ways, if you interview, but not everyone can do that.) Colleges want to know the living, breathing, learning, pizza-eating, Netflix-binge-watching student who will wander their campus, stay up all night studying in the library and play beach volleyball in the residence quad. As with the essays, colleges want to know: Who are you? Will you be a good roommate? How will you contribute to campus life?
A simple transcript doesn't answer that question. Your essay presents that information from your point of view, but the letters of recommendation from your counselor, your teachers or other adults who know you well can make the difference between a place on the waitlist or an offer of admission. So here are some tips to keep in mind to get great letters of recommendation.
1) Start Early
Most students don't even think about getting recommendations until fall of senior year, when they see the application requires them. Then they approach the teacher in their hardest class, thinking that having a letter from their AP English or Calculus teacher will look good to the Admissions Committee. Stop right there.
While I'm sure your AP English teacher is a lovely person and writes really good letters, he or she has only known you for a month or two. Probably not enough time to get a feeling for you as a student, much less you as a person. Admissions committees can tell when the recommender doesn't know the student well, so it comes off as a lukewarm recommendation, even when the letter sings your praises.
A better idea is to approach your junior year teachers in the spring, after they've had you in class for an entire year and have really gotten to know you and your classroom habits. If you have one, approach a teacher in a core class (English, math, social studies, science, foreign language), who has known you over multiple years. Not only will they have more to write about, but they can also offer perspective on how you've grown and matured since freshman year.
2) Be polite
Remember, you're asking your recommenders for a favor. Be polite: ask in person first whether or not the person feels they can write you a good recommendation. Hopefully they will be honest with you. A poor or vague recommendation can actually be worse than no recommendation at all.
3) Give your recommender plenty of time
Contrary to elementary school suspicions, teachers don't live in their classrooms or get put away in the broom closet at the end of the day. They have lives and families and other responsibilities (shocking, I know). So your request for a recommendation is the equivalent to a big homework project: they're willing to do it, but it's going to take some time to fit it in. Give your recommenders at least six weeks lead time before the letter has to be in the mail/submitted via Naviance or the Common Application. This is another reason why asking at the end of junior year is better than fall of senior year. Your recommenders have all summer to work on your letter at their convenience, so you're likely to get a better product. In the fall, you're competing for time with other seniors' letters, plus homework grading, lesson planning, Parents' Night and all the other things teachers have to do to start off the new school year. (You didn't think teachers just taught the same lessons in the same way year after year, did you?)
4) Give them plenty to write about
Many teachers ask (or require) you to fill out a "Brag Sheet" for them to refer to when writing your letter. This is a way for them to fill in any gaps in their knowledge about you, and a way for those senior year teachers to have something to say about a student they may have just met. If you've been keeping your activities resume or website up to date, this would serve the same purpose as a brag sheet. Better to write a personal letter or email to the teacher, thanking them for agreeing to recommend you, and reminding them of one or two things you have identified as important for the admissions committee to hear. Demonstrated leadership and academic achievement are almost always good topics. Have you distinguished yourself in classroom discussion? Has this teacher singled you out for praise for a project, paper or other accomplishment, or invited you to do something special (join an academic team, take a more advanced class, teach Spanish to preschoolers)? Mention that in your request letter. (If not, you might consider whether this is the right teacher to ask for a recommendation.) Here's a sample of what the recommendation request might look like:
With your request letter, you need to provide stamped envelopes addressed to the school the letter is going to. Multiple schools need multiple copies of the letter, so mention all the schools in your request. If you're using Naviance or the Common Application, mention in your letter than you will send them email links to upload their letters. If you like, you can ask your recommenders to seal their letters in envelopes that you will then include in your application package, but since paper applications are pretty old school, that can be weird. Having multiple sealed hard-copies is quite handy for scholarship applications, though, as many of those are not as internet-savvy.
A Note About Naviance and other online applications:
Web-based application programs allow you to just list your choice of recommenders, who are then sent an email by the program with a link to upload their letter. This is meant as a convenience for the recommender. However, it makes it way too easy for students to let the program do the asking for them. DO NOT LIST ANYONE WITHOUT FIRST ASKING THEM IN PERSON AND FOLLOWING UP WITH A REQUEST LETTER! There is no better way to get a terrible recommendation letter--or no letter at all--than to essentially summon your teacher's recommendation.
5) Follow up with a thank-you note
About four weeks after you send the request letter, send a (preferably hand-written) thank you note to the teacher. This accomplishes two things: a) reminds them how awesome you are, in case you decide to apply to more colleges or to scholarship competitions and need more copies of the letter in the future, and b) reminds them of the deadline, in case they've become so busy they forgot. Teachers are usually pretty organized and great at multitasking, but things happen. A polite note can keep your applications on track without nagging.
BONUS TIP: While it can be convenient to have non-confidential recommendations, admissions officers generally give more weight and credibility to confidential letters. This doesn't mean that you can't ever see your recommendations (some teachers will show them to you anyway), but indicating on the application that you have not seen the letters is better.
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