College Recommendation Letter Tips

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Who Should I Ask for College Recommendation Letters?

Who to ask is a very important decision.  First, each application has a limited number of reference letters – usually three.  Of course your mom would give you an amazing review, and so would your neighbor who’s known you your entire life; your first grade teacher might have wonderful things to say, too (“He’s so good at coloring within the lines!”) – but would what they would have to say be relevant to a college?  Consider this: if you were taking reference letters from people who wanted to be your Facebook friends and you could choose only [I’d put a specific number here—10 or 20], what would stand out about those letters?  Would an important name or position make that letter stand out?  Would the information and credibility of the content in the letter make you more likely to consider the person who it’s written about?  The answer to both questions is definitely yes.  So, in your college admission world, who would stand out to the person who opens your admission packet and, after looking at your GPA, begins to read your recommendation letters?

The Person: Title, Position, Credibility.

If Larry Page (CEO of Google) wrote a recommendation letter for you with lots of positive points about your character, work, ethics and goals, that would get some major attention.  Unfortunately, most of us are not on a first-name basis with Fortune 500 entrepreneurs, executives or politicians (if you are, please make sure to request a letter of recommendation from them.  After all, life is about networking).  But the equivalent of that in our lives is your high school principal or director, assistant principal or dean, the head of your math team / debate team / sports team, etc.  When you pick your extracurricular activities you’re not just choosing what you’ll spend your time doing between the end of classes and dinner time – you’re choosing your associations and who you network with.  If you have built a connection with the assistant principal, make sure you ask him or her for a recommendation letter.  The best-case scenario is that you’re being recommended by at least one person in a high position, who knows you well, especially your work and character, and preferably is associated with the field in which you wish to study (your AP Mathematics teacher  and the head of the math team if you’re applying to an engineering school; your AP History teacher or the debate team coach if you’re applying in pre-law).  Beyond this, you should ask teachers, supervisors and colleagues that you’ve had a good relationship with to write your letters.  In a pinch, teachers you’ve received excellent grades from (preferably in your junior year) are a very good option.  In other words, you’re looking for the two teachers who can write “glowing” recommendation letters, ones that portray you as one of the best, brightest, most dedicated and creative students in the class.

Relationship to You

Pick people who have known you for a long time, preferably even in different contexts.  For example, a teacher you had for more than one year, or a teacher you had for a year but who was also your football coach; a supervisor who was first a colleague, who’s known you for three years.  This will give the writer more credibility and ensure that he or she has a broader knowledge of who you really are.  Someone who has known your studious nature for a year and a half will be believed more than someone who has known you for only three months.  The more the writer is able to comment on your current personality and your overall potential for academic success, the better your chances at getting into the college of your choice.

Writing Technique of the Recommender

English teachers are great sources of recommendation letters, for the single reason that they are usually great writers.  The recommender’s writing technique (or lack thereof) shouldn’t affect your application – but it does.  If your recommender doesn’t know that he/she should write about your three greatest strengths as a student and as a character, or doesn’t know how to word it effectively, then you’re in trouble. Some teachers and high school officials are very experienced at writing letters of recommendation, but if you’re not sure about your recommenders, it makes sense to discuss with them-tactfully!-what you hope they will include in the letter, including the fact that letters submitted in hard copy should be written on the school’s letterhead, with their title and position beneath their name and signature. Keep in mind that colleges and universities want your letters of recommendation to be confidential and sealed, meaning that you are not allowed to edit or even read them.