Letters of Recommendation are a key element of any application, whether that be for a college application or a job interview. In fact, letters of recommendation are the only part of your application that may seem to be entirely out of your control. However, there are many things you can do to boost your chances that the letter will improve your profile.
Nonetheless, it is important to note that the letter of recommendation will rarely make or break your application – it is unlikely a mediocre, or even below average recommendation will destroy your chances. However, a very strong letter can set you apart from the pack.
Therefore, you should do everything possible to get the best letter of recommendation you can. Being timely in your request and being polite is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to getting a good recommendation. In this blog, we’ll explore how you can use your recommendation to set yourself apart from other applicants.
Related: How to Make Your College Application Stand Out
8 ways to get an excellent letter of recommendation
Your letter of recommendation is a critical part of your application. By focusing on your request and making sure you optimize your ask, you can get the best letter possible.
1. Choose the right teacher to ask for your letter of recommendation
Ideally, if you can find a teacher who –
- Likes you
- Knows you well
- Taught you recently
- Taught you a core subject (English, math, social studies, or science).
If you don’t have a teacher who fits all of these, prioritize your choice in the above order and choose accordingly.
*Double check what your chosen college requires because some will request recommendations from specific teachers.
What to do if you need two or more teachers
Choose teachers who know different aspects of you and can speak about your varying strengths. Try to stick to the teachers of academic subjects unless you’re applying for an arts college – then, of course, use your arts teachers.
What to do if you don’t know any of your teachers
More about this in the next point, but for now, if you don’t already know any of your teachers – get to know them. Make an appointment during your chosen teacher’s office hours and talk with them. Ask about the class, work, and be honest about your situation. Print and fill out this questionnaire about yourself and your plans for the future. Here’s a similar one for your counselor as well. If the teacher agrees to write you a letter of recommendation, they may want to meet with you again or give you their own questionnaire, just to get to know you better. Do it and get to know them as well.
Given a little more time, print out this Common App Teacher Evaluation form. With your chosen teachers in mind, think about how your teacher will realistically answer the questions about you. While you’re at it, consider how you would like them to answer those same questions. For instance, when the form asks, “what are the first words that come to mind when you think of this student?” – what do you think they’ll say? What do you wish they would say? Now you have a few targets to aim at. Work backward from this form to become an exceptional student.
2. Build a relationship from day one
Having a strong rapport with your requestee is essential to receiving an appropriate, sincere, and genuine letter. If you form a bond with your advisor from the start, they are less likely to use a cookie-cutter recommendation format and more likely to write one that truly highlights your unique qualities. In fact, a strong relationship with your advisor can be the bump you need to have them write a letter that depicts the intricacies of your personality, rather than a shallow description of your easily recognizable traits.
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3. Be careful who you ask for a letter
Conversely, asking a person with whom you have a poor relationship can be detrimental to your application. If they are kind, they will generally tell you they are unable to write a compelling letter. However, if not, an ill-spirited letter may harm your chances, since most companies and universities will assume you would be able to pick an advisor that likes you. Therefore, if the best you can do is find a teacher that dislikes you, companies will not look at your application favorably. Being close with your advisor and meeting with them outside of regular hours will help guarantee a better letter.
4. Make sure you actually ask
It may be tempting to forgo the awkward ordeal of asking your teacher at all. Why not just add their name to your Common App or other forms? It’s a bad idea, that’s why. No one wants to feel manipulated into doing something – even if that wasn’t your intention. You want the best possible recommendation, and it won’t come from a person who feels disrespected or manipulated.
5. If possible, ask in person
While extenuating circumstances (like the Coronavirus!) may not allow you to ask in person, asking your recommender for a letter in real life shows your confidence and sincerity. While it is permissible to email your recommender if you aren’t able to catch them or if they no longer live in your vicinity, it is preferable if you are able to visit them. This also gives them an opportunity to ask you any questions and is a great time to give them a resume for reference. If you ask in person, this also gives your recommender an opportunity to discuss the submission platform and due date to avoid any last-minute problems.
*Note: Don’t ‘group ask’ your teacher for a letter of recommendation. It will be difficult for them to say yes to one of you and no to the other. Again, from point number 4, you don’t want a teacher who feels manipulated into an action to write your letter. If your appointment got hijacked by your bestie, make time to go back to the teacher, apologize, and properly request a letter.
6. Give adequate enough time for the recommender to write
On that note, the best way to avoid last-minute issues is to make sure you ask for your recommendation well ahead of time. If you wait too close to a deadline, your recommender may be unable to write the letter. Even worse, your recommender may agree but write a poor quality or rushed letter of recommendation. You can also avoid errors with the technical reception of the letter by having the teacher submit their letter well before the deadline. While not a requirement, this step is the most important to secure a well-written and comprehensive letter. Ideally, ask them at the end of junior year. If you missed that opportune time, 90 days before the time the letter is required is next best.
7. Provide the recommender with additional information about yourself i.e. resume, grades, and copy of the application.
Providing your recommender with a holistic view of yourself, including information they didn’t know beforehand, is the best way to have your recommender touch on all the aspects of your personality. This is especially important for industry or major-specific letters of recommendation – having your recommender discuss your extracurricular or volunteer activities can be the boost you need to showcase your commitment to your passions. You can also give your recommender more information by having a quick chat with them before they write the letter or submitting other supplemental materials, such as grades or a musical piece.
Related: Leadership Activities for High School Students
8. Handle the print submissions yourself
Believe it or not, some schools prefer the letters of recommendation to arrive via snail mail. If this is what your chosen school requires, assume responsibility for taking care of this for your teacher. They probably won’t give you the letter to post, but you can provide them with a stamped envelope addressed to the college’s admissions office.
Bonus Tip: Follow up with a thank you email or letter
Just as in most cases, you should always write a thank you letter to your recommender. At best, it will improve your recommender’s impression of you and have him or she write a better or more genuine letter. Regardless, it is common courtesy to thank someone for doing a favor for you, and writing a proper letter of recommendation is no easy task. A good letter can take up to 3 hours to compose, and this isn’t time your teacher is paid for.
It’s also polite to give a small gift if you know your recommender in that context. If you are accepted to your position, you can also update the person following your departure into the new job or university.
Structuring a Letter of Recommendation
Provide an example
Letters of recommendation often follow a very formulaic structure, describing the person and then their activities. This isn’t inherently bad, but a more creative and unique letter of recommendation will likely set the applicant apart as one who the recommender really cares about and wants to succeed.
To do so, you should describe the traits that make this person stand out. Rather than doing so directly, you may describe the application in relation to specific memories that you remember or specific activities the applicant participates in. Showing the true personality of the applicant, juxtaposed with their strengths and extracurricular involvement, is the best way to highlight their potential.
Offer to write the letter yourself
No, this isn’t about forgery. If you know your teacher well, you can offer to write the letter yourself for them. You can write a glowing recommendation that includes all of the components you know the college is expecting. Then give it to the teacher for their review, tweaks, and authorization. It will save them time, and you’ll get the letter you know you need.
Related: How to Get College Scholarships
Writing a letter of recommendation is no easy task-it often requires many drafts and many consultations of the applicant’s resume.
However, asking for that letter can be even more daunting to the applicant. Given the weight of the letter of recommendation and the power it has to potentially set the applicant apart, you should make sure to take your time in requesting this letter and consider your options. Determining your relationship with your mentors and your past experiences with them will help guide your decision so you make the best choice.
Nevertheless, it is most important to remember that the recommender is just another person. Common courtesies, like asking nicely and with plenty of time to spare, are key to ensuring you get the best letter you can. So, when you ask for your next letter of recommendation, don’t be afraid – just be genuine and prepare for the best!
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