Letters of Recommendation Basics

Who and how to ask for this application component.

By Kathryn Knight Randolph

October 14, 2016

Letters of Recommendation Basics

Not too long ago, letters of recommendation for the college application were merely a suggestion. Now, they are a requirement at most colleges. While students have control over filling out their application, writing their essay and choosing other supplemental materials to include, they actually have very little input into what makes up their letters of recommendation.

However, there are a few ways to make recommendation letters work to the best of your benefit; start with these guidelines.

Who should I ask?

This is oftentimes that hardest part of the recommendation process if you’ve never had a letter written on your behalf. Start by thinking about each of the various grown-ups in your life – coaches, pastors, employers, counselors, mentors, teachers or family friend. Do any of these individuals stand out to you as someone who knows your character well and has a good relationship with you? Narrow down your list to three or four people to ask to write a letter of recommendation.

Don’t ask your Mom or Dad. Don’t ask a friend. Don’t ask someone that doesn’t really know you very well. Admissions officers will completely disregard a letter of recommendation written by a parent or peer; they will absolutely demonstrate bias toward you.

How should I prepare the letter?

Depending on who you ask, they may want you to be involved in the letter-writing process a great deal or not at all. There are occasions for which a recommender might ask you to write a draft of the letter or provide some points on which you’d like them to write. For instance, you may have to provide a coach with some guidance on writing about your character traits as a player on the field as well as your leadership skills in the locker room.

Ask your recommenders whether or not they want you involved in the process. More likely than not, they will handle writing the letter entirely on their own. However, if they do what you to draft a letter or detail some writing points, be prepared.

What should it say?

A letter of recommendation needs to first identify who is writing the letter, their position and how they know you. It’s also helpful if they detail how long they’ve known you in their introduction – so try to find someone that has known you for at least a year.

Next, the letter should describe how you’ve grown since they’ve known you. It can act as a history of your acquaintance and how your relationship to one another has changed, how you’ve developed as a person and what has inspired your evolvement.

The letter of recommendation should follow up on how you’ve grown with characteristics that set you apart from other students. What makes you unique to this particular individual – is it your curiosity, independence, leadership, intellect, maturity or ambition that they most admire?

Finally, the recommender should articulate why they think you would be a good fit for the university, honors program or scholarship opportunity. This is the entire point of the letter so it’s important that it’s stated.

Don’t be anxious or nervous about asking for letters of recommendation. Chances are the grown-ups in your life have had to write a few before. So make a list of individuals to ask, prepare them with everything they need to complete their recommendation and provide them with a deadline so that you can submit the application on your timeline.

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