Four Simple Tips for Getting Great College Recommendation Letters
So you’re in high school, and you’re looking at colleges, and on the application it asks for two (or even THREE) letters of recommendation. What? You have to involve other people in your application? It matters if your teachers like you? Yikes!
But don’t worry.
For many of you high schoolers, these are probably the first letters of recommendation anyone has ever written about you. And not only that, these mysterious letters are an essential piece of the college application process and colleges won’t even LOOK at your application unless you have them. Yikes again!
But again, don’t worry.
It’s true that these letters of recommendation are incredibly important, and may take you a little ways out of your comfort zone in asking for them. However, as with any component of the college process, there is a process, and there are successful strategies, for acquiring solid recommendation letters. So let’s talk it through.
OK: you’re sitting down for the first time to figure out who you’re going to ask for recommendations. Get a piece of paper and a pencil or pen or whatever. Grab the requirements lists for your applications, so you’ve got all the information handy. Now, it’s time for a little note-taking and self-interview.
Take a look at your applications and figure out:
– What’s the greatest number of letters you need for any application? Two? Three?
– Does the college specify that the recommendation has to come from a teacher in a specific subject area?
– When are the letters of recommendation due?
Now, ask YOURSELF:
- What teachers know me best? (Focus on the teachers you’ve had Junior year to start)
- What’s my relationship with my college counselor? How well does he or she know me?
- What do I want these colleges to know about me? What teachers know those things too?
Once you have this information and reflection together, it’s time to start putting together your plan. Luckily for you, we’ve got a few tips on how you might proceed:
ONE: Make sure they know you well enough
The least effective college letters are those that are short and highly factual. As in:
“John Delphia was a student in my History class. He wrote many papers. He is now applying to your college. John wants to be a college student at your college. Thank you.”
To avoid this, ask teachers who have had you in class recently (Junior year, or maybe Senior year if you’ve really hit it off) or, better yet, teachers who lead clubs you’re in. If you get a good feeling from a teacher and you worked hard in their class, they’re probably a good person to ask. Its also a great idea to fill out a form with information about yourself to tell your teacher what you are proud of and would like them to mention. If you don’t have any teacher who knows you well, spend some time talking to a teacher after school and try to build a relationship before you ask for the letter (if you have time).
TWO: English teachers can be a great choice
English and Writing skills are essential in college. An English teacher can speak better than anyone to your skills in those areas. Of course, if you goofed off in English all year, maybe you shouldn’t ask that teacher. But if you worked hard, and did well, you can bet that teacher will be able to write well about you. They are ENGLISH teachers after all, so they’d better know a whole bunch of good adjectives!
THREE: Ask early
You’d better give those teachers AT LEAST a month to write and submit a letter of recommendation. This is for a couple reasons. First, you want to seem responsible and generally on top of things. Second, you want to respect the fact that they are almost definitely writing such letters in their free go to time, and it’s possible that 15 students asked for letters. And third, you want them to have the time to do a good job, not a rush job. DON’T DELAY.
If you’re ahead of the game, you might ask for letters from your Junior year teachers by the end of your Junior year. That way, the teachers have all summer to craft the perfect letter for you!
FOUR: Write Thank You notes
We cannot stress this point enough: WRITE THANK YOU NOTES. You should do this before you graduate High School, and tell your recommendation writers where you decided to attend. Not only is this good practice, and good manners, but you help set the stage for many, many students who will come after you asking for letters. So pay it forward, write a thank you!
If you’ve read all this and you’re still anxious about asking, remember this: you’re probably not the first to ask. It’s very likely that these teachers are veteran recommendation letter writers, and who knows, they may even enjoy it. For some teachers, it is a very fulfilling experience to support students who are heading on to college. So don’t deprive them of that fulfillment! And worst case scenario, they say “no.” And you’ll still be fine.
For more information and tips, check out the page on this topic from The College Board, or a similar post on the Get Into College Blog.