One statement in a recommendation letter states that a student has a 4.0 unweighted grade point average and is taking five AP courses.
Another statement discusses a student’s role in the classroom, with the teacher observing that the student’s enthusiasm about learning and the charisma they carry with them are unparalleled and are rarely found among high school students.
The first statement is generic, the second is strong and personal. Whether a teacher says the first statement about you as a student or the second statement can significantly alter your chances of gaining admission into your dream school.
The second statement is more valuable because it tells the admissions officer what sets you apart from other applicants. As a student, your goal should be to create strong and personal relationships with your teachers, coaches, and mentors that will yield you a strong and personal recommendation letter when it's time to apply to colleges.
So, how do you create these relationships? Here are four tips that will get you well on your way to earning the best recommendation letter:
1. Choose teachers who know you
Typically, colleges prefer recommendation letters from teachers that you had during your junior or senior year of high school, because they want to get a feel of the type of student you are right now.
However, you don’t want to be approaching a teacher for the first time during the fall of your senior year to ask for a recommendation - it is going to be quite hard for a teacher to say that you are one of the best students they have seen in their career if they have barely spoken to you before.
Rather, try choosing a teacher that you have been interacting with regularly for at least one year, because chances are you know them well, and they have a good impression of you as a student. The people that you ask for a recommendation letter should be people that you know well, so give yourself more time to form a strong bond with your potential recommender.
2. Be open about both your strengths and your flaws
It is tempting to always show your best side to a teacher who might one day write your recommendation letter. But talking about your accomplishments every time you get a chance to talk to your teacher will not only make you seem self-absorbed and unsympathetic, but will also result in a recommendation letter that just lists all your accomplishments. You want your recommendation letter to add to your application, not just repeat information that can be found on other parts of your application.
Talk to your teachers about your goals and notify them after reaching a milestone, but also balance your conversations by talking a bit about your other side. Maybe talk about an embarrassing childhood story, your biggest fear, or a pet peeve.
Being open about both your strengths and your flaws will give a recommender a more comprehensive view of you as an individual, allowing your recommendation letter to reflect on your personality and values rather than just your accomplishments.
That being said, you don’t necessarily need to pick a teacher that taught the class that you got your highest grade of the term in. Choosing a class that you struggled in, but one that you still put in your full effort for, allows the teacher to say something about you work ethic and your determination when faced by a challenge.
3. Given the chance, try to choose a teacher that you interacted with outside the classroom
If you take an active part in any club and the teacher advisor of that club has also been your primary teacher for a class you have taken, asking that individual for a recommendation letter is a great idea. Even more value will be added to your recommendation letter ff you have a leadership role in this club because the teacher will have more things to say about your involvement. Not only have you interacted with this teacher by participating in the classroom, you have also built a relationship by interacting with them during your extracurriculars.
These different interactions have shown your teacher different sides of yourself. One side is the student, the other is an individual that is making a noticeable effort to get involved and make an impact in their community.
4. Many small interactions count just as much as few larger
When trying to create these relationships, don’t expect to get a stellar recommendation letter after interacting with a teacher once for 30 minutes. Instead, you should aim to get to know your recommender through many small interactions.
Rather than setting up one meeting with a parent to talk about all your accomplishments, drop in for five minutes at the end of every week to say “hi,” ask about how things are going, and give a little update on how things are on your end.This approach will be far more effective, as micro interactions paint a better picture of an individual and their personality.
Think about it, would you be as close to your best friends, if you just talked to them twice for 15 minutes? Probably not. The same goes for building a close relationship with a teacher, coach, or mentor.
When your recommendation letters hit the tables of the admissions’ office, admissions officers are looking to know you through the perspective of your teachers, coaches, and mentors, but they are also looking for qualities that set you apart from other applicants. Let your future recommenders know what sets you apart - remember strong and personal micro interactions are your best bet.