5 Tips For Getting College Recommendation Letters

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Right now students across the country are putting together their college applications. For many students, especially those applying to private universities, having amazing college recommendation letters is essential. However, finding the best people to write these letters, and then asking them, can be a challenge.

We went out and found some amazing experts to share their top tips for getting the best college recommendation letters possible. Use these strategies now, so that you can be assured you’ll have great references on your college application.

Here are the tips:

Who To Ask (And Not To Ask)

We’ve seen a whole lot of questionable choices in our time working with applicants: letters from parents, friends, a teacher whose class the student frequently skipped, an administrator the student didn’t know… at all, a teacher the student didn’t like… It is more common than one would think.

So before we talk about who students SHOULD ask, it’s important to note what a bad choice looks like. Bad picks are people who would obviously be biased, who aren’t credible, who won’t write great stuff about you, or whose praise won’t seem genuine or relevant.

Good choices are people who know you well, who can speak with confidence and in detail about your strengths, skills, passions, and your integrity. The admissions committee is going to read thousands of recommendations and, let’s be honest, there are only so many adjectives to describe an applicant: dedicated, responsible, smart, etc…. After a while, the letters all start to sound the same! So it’s the details and the specific stories that will have the biggest impact, and really set you apart from the other applicants. The better your recommender knows you, the better that letter is going to be.

Examples of good choices: a teacher who you like and have a good relationship with, who can speak about your strengths and talents; employers who know how responsible you are; club advisors or coaches who can speak about your abilities. (A plus if any of these people attended the school you’re applying for!)

Lauren Herskovic, Chief Operating Officer, Admissionado

Start Early With Teachers Who Know You

Students should approach their “chosen” teachers as early as possible in the first semester of their senior year to avoid the stampede of last minute early action appliers and others, but the students’ real task of forming connections and building relationships with these teachers should start long before. Most students assume that they should ask for recommendation letters from the teachers who gave them the best grades, but these may or may not be the teachers who really “know” them. The best recommendation letters are going to come from teachers that truly know their students and the sincerity in their writing will positively shine through during the admissions process. Colleges want to see recommendation letters from teachers who know the student is a hard-worker and is someone who shows promise for continued academic success, but they also want to catch a glimpse of how the student acts socially inside and outside the classroom. They want to know what kind of person the student is and how they are going to make their college or university better, and this can’t always be communicated by the teacher who gave a student the A for passing exams, turning in homework on time, and answering some questions with a few canned responses.

 Ross Riskin, CPA and Certified College Planning Specialist at Riskin Advisory

Make Sure Recommendations Are Recent

Letters of recommendation are a student’s opportunity to show college admissions officers what their personality, strengths, attitude, character, level of maturity, and special interests are through the eyes of the people who know them best. As such, select teachers from your junior or senior year. Colleges like a recent impression of the student. At the same time, consider asking teachers whose subject may relate to a future area of study. For example, students who plan on studying engineering should ask a math or physical science teacher. A student interested in communications should ask an English teacher.

Christine Brown, executive director of K-12 and college admissions programs, for Kaplan Test Prep

Ensure That Recommendations Are Addressed To The Director Of Admissions

Letters of recommendation always look better when they are addressed properly. A simple way to remember is to sure they are addressed to the Director of Admissions. Here’s a sample template:

Date
[Name of College]
[Director's name you need to know it]
Director of Admissions
[Street or P.O. Box]
[City, State, Zip, Zip+4 if available]
RE: Student’s Name & High School
Dear Director ?: [You need to know their name!]

Reecy Aresty, author of How To Pay For College Without Going Broke

Students Should Prepare A “Resume”, But Not Really

I advise all of my students to provide their recommendation writers with a substantial amount of material that the writers can then use, in whole or in part, to bulk up the letters. It is also useful to provide electronic copies of such material, to make copying and pasting easy.

Rather than writing this information down in a traditional recommendation letter format, I ask students to think about what they want the writer to reference in the letter, and then turn in a document with questions and corresponding answers that are full of examples. 

For teacher recommendations, the questions should be specific to the student’s performance in that particular class – the questions should include ones such as “How did the student’s presence in class impact the learning experience for the rest of the students?” or “Explain instances where the student demonstrated intellectual curiosity in the classroom.” 

Counselor questions, on the other hand, should discuss the student as a whole and provide information to substantiate any challenges that the student may have faced along the way. 

The biggest mistake that a student can make is providing a teacher or counselor with a resume to aid in writing the letter. This is actually worse than giving the person no material at all! It becomes very tempting for the writer to compose a “blah” recommendation that simply lists off a bunch of clubs and provides no actual information that the student’s application itself does not already provide. 

Colleen Ganjian from DC College Counseling  

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