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Help Them Help You: The Secrets of a Great Recommendation Letter

Help Them Help You: The Secrets of a Great Recommendation Letter

Help them help you with the secrets of a great recommendation letter.

By Liluye Jhala, former admissions officer at Brown University and ApplyWise counselor

March 10, 2009

When I first started working in the Brown Admissions Office, I assumed my primary responsibility was to select the strongest students. Instead, I soon discovered that my job was a combination of both gatekeeper and counselor. Even with a highly talented pool of students, my admissions colleagues and I spent many hours discussing how a student would make an impact in and out of class. Letters of recommendation were crucial during this assessment.

As you work on your applications, know that there are a few steps that you can take to ensure a great recommendation letter.

Step 1: Pick the Right Teachers
I cannot tell you the number of times I have read letters from coaches or violin teachers or shop teachers. Your primary recommenders should be in your core academic subjects in your Junior or Senior year. Also, a common misconception is that you have to pick someone in whose class you got an A. It is often better to select someone who got to know you well and saw you grow and improve. Your references need to comment on your personality, impact in the school community, and your academic skills. Finally, do not duplicate. Every aspect of your application should share new and different information about you. Try not to pick teachers from the same academic subject. If you do, they should share diverse sides of the your academic and social contributions.

Step 2: Meet with Your References before you ask for a letter
Meet with your teacher at least one month in advance to ask for a recommendation. Then, spend some time to discuss your college search process. During the meeting, give them a copy of your resume and examples of your assignments. The more information they have about you and your colleges, there greater the likelihood that they can customize your letter to show why you are a great match. With all of this information in hand, then you can ask if they would not mind writing a letter. If you put this effort beforehand, it is very likely that they will say yes!

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Step 3: Help your teacher as much as you can
Once your teachers agree to write a letter on your behalf, give them the appropriate forms with a self-addressed envelope and a self-addressed return postcard. This post card will let you know when your letter has been received by the admissions office. Also, make sure that you ask your teachers to keep a copy. Finally, badgering your teacher every day about your letter will not help. Instead, politely ask if your letter has been submitted once a week.

Step 4: Waive your right to see the letter
Why? This tells colleges that a) you are confident about your teacher’s assessment of you and b) the letter they are reading is an honest reflection of you as a student. If you do not waive your right colleges might think a) you have something to hide and b) they shouldn’t take the letter as seriously as it may not be entirely forthcoming.

Step 5: Show your appreciation
Remember, your teachers are helping you with your application and they are generously giving their time to write this letter on your behalf. A great letter of recommendation will not guarantee you admission to your school, but it does not hurt. When your application is due, express your appreciation with a small token—such as a box of chocolates!

With these five easy steps, you can ensure that you’ve done what you can to help your teachers write the best recommendation that they possibly can. Remember, admissions officers are looking for letters that are honest and give a glimpse of your personality and contributions to your school and community that your grades and test scores cannot.

Best of Luck!

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