Securing a Kick-Ass College Recommendation

The letter of recommendation is tricky. On one hand, it’s the only part of the application that doesn’t require any writing on the applicant’s part—easy! On the other hand, it’s the only part that applicants don’t have direct control over—stressful!

The truth: Done properly, the letter of recommendation will take the same amount of work and have just as predictable results as material you write yourself.  

The biggest mistake applicants make is thinking that because they won’t be writing the letter themselves, they don’t need to do any work. Nothing could be further from the truth! A glowing letter of recommendation can tip the college admissions scales in your favor, but there are a number of important steps you, the applicant, must take to ensure this result.

Step 1: Choose Wisely

Every college you apply to will require 2-3 letters of recommendation from people who can speak to your academic, professional or personal character. Admission officers are looking for letters from individuals that can wax poetic about what you will bring to a college campus, while highlighting your work ethic, maturityspecific requirements and intellectual curiosity.

It’s important that the people you select are not family members or friends. At least one of your letters should come from a teacher or educator, preferably someone that has taught you within the last two years. Many schools will require a letter from your college counselor as well. The remaining letter(s) should come from an employer, coach, mentor or any other (non-relative) adult that can attest to your character.

You want to choose people that can use personal anecdotes and stories to paint a vivid picture of you. It’s better to ask your former Girl Scout troop leader, who has known you for a decade, than the CEO of a company you interned for over the summer who can’t remember your name. Remember, we need people who will be not just willing, but excited to sit down and write a few hundred new, individualized words about how awesome you are!

Step 2: Ask For The Rec

Writing a letter of recommendation is an incredibly personal task and you want to make sure your recommender has enough time to craft a glowing picture of you. Many teachers will place a cap on the number of letters they write each year, so asking early is your best shot at making their list. You can begin asking for a letter as early as September your senior year, but no later than one month before they are due. There are, of course, exceptions to this rule. Some students choose to ask their junior year teacher at the end of junior year. This can be incredibly beneficial as you will still be fresh in your teacher’s mind. If you decide to ask during your junior year be sure to set a date to meet at the beginning of your senior fall term to discuss how to update the letter with any new accomplishments.

When asking for a letter of recommendation, it’s important to demonstrate to the recommender WHY you chose him or her to represent you on paper. Asking in-person should always be your first option. A simple five-minute conversation allows you the chance to show your recommender how much a letter from them would mean to you. Before you go in for the ask, sit down and brainstorm a few personal reasons that you are asking this specific person. Was there a particular assignment or class discussion that’s stayed with you? Did this teacher help you overcome an obstacle or teach you a new skill? Highlighting the way recommenders have impacted you is a great way to show them why you need a letter from them, while also giving them a few ideas for theletter’s content.

If there’s no way for you to have a face-to-face with your potential recommender, then your best bet is to set up a phone call. Speaking on the phone is still far more personal than email or text. Again, the important thing here is that you illustrate why you are asking this particular person to create such an important piece of your college application.

Step 3: Come Prepared

So they said yes! Congratulations, the scary part is over! Now what? You may think your job is done, but not quite. After your recommender accepts, you must provide them with as much information as possible to help them craft that golden letter. Although the Common App has standardized quite a few steps in the admissions process, many schools still have specific requirements and submission guidelines for recommenders. It’s your job to consolidate all that information for your recommender and make the process as easy for them as possible.

This should include a list of the colleges that you are applying to, a brief note on why you have chosen each school, the LOR prompt(s), and the deadlines. You should also provide your recommender with a final-ish draft of your personal statement or (depending on how early in the process you ask) a thorough outline. This will help your recommender have a clear vision of the self-portrait you are painting so that they can create a complementary image.

Set up a meeting to provide this information and answer any lingering questions the recommender may have. This also offers a great opportunity for you to mention specific attributes about yourself that you feel aren’t reflected in your personal statement and transcript… which *cough cough* might be perfect for a LOR…

Step 4: Check In

We’re not done yet! The letter writing process is now out of your hands, but it’s important to continue to check in with your recommenders throughout the process.

Here’s a dirty little secret: Adults procrastinate just as much as high school students. Aim to send a quick email a week or two before the deadline to make sure the letter has been missed. Be polite in your email! Thank your recommender—again—for agreeing to help you, express your gratitude and your excitement that you’re close to completing the application process, and end things by inviting them to reach out to you if they require any further information. Be tactful and respectful!

Some recommenders may ask you to review the letter before they submit. It’s best to only offer feedback if the letter is way off base or misrepresents a specific detail about your relationship. If your recommender chooses not to share their letter with you that’s ok. In fact, most people won’t. Remember, this letter is meant to be confidential and if you chose wisely than you should be confident that your recommender will only have wonderful things to say about you.

Step 5: A Final Note (literally)

After your recommender has submitted the letter send them a thank you note. A REAL thank you note. No emails, no texts, just good old-fashioned pen, paper, envelope and—if need be—stamp.

And that’s it! If the process seems a little stodgy, that’s because it is: Some of the oldest extant pieces of writing are glowing recommendations for prospective officials in a Mesopotamian royal court. We humans have been doing this for millennia, and guess what? Almost all those letters are positive. Very few people are mean enough to put in the effort of writing a negative recommendation. So if you’ve followed the steps above, rest easy that your recommendation is adding to your admissions argument… and get to work on your essays!

How To Talk To Your Kids About Grades