By Dennis Bua and Ishan Puri
Recommendation letters are an important part of a student's college application. It is a misconception that the student has no control over these documents. In fact, one of the most critical steps is the student's selection of his/her recommenders. Furthermore, once a student selects a group of recommenders, it is up to him/her to provide these teachers and/or mentors with materials to prompt them to write a strong, student-specific recommendation letter. In this article, students will find six items they can compose to improve their letters of recommendation (LORs) for college applications.
How many LORs will be needed?
Firstly, how many LORs will a student need for his/her college applications? The ballpark estimate is one or two LORs. The exact number of LORs a student needs is determined by the student's finalized college list. The reason for this is LOR requirements are variable among colleges. For example, Harvey Mudd College requires two LORs: one from a math or science teacher and one from a humanities, social science, or art teacher. In contrast the institutions in the University of California system do not require LORs. A general guideline is to plan for two LORs from teachers in different areas of study, but it is best to check on each university's website once the college list is finalized. Some tips for putting together a college list can be found here.
What do colleges ask recommenders?
The LOR format for many colleges and universities consists of two parts: 1) an evaluation and ranking section and 2) the letter itself. There is an in-depth breakdown of what the recommender provides here. Briefly in the evaluation and ranking section, recommenders are often asked to answer questions about the maturity-level of the student and how the student deals with challenges. Additionally, the recommender can be asked if he/she would rank this applicant in the top 10% of students he/she has encountered. The top 5%? The top 1%? Given this, the student needs to reflect and consider how the potential recommender would answer these questions before asking the recommender for a reference letter. When the student asks the recommender it is best it say: will you be able to write me a strong letter of recommendation? If the recommender has any reservations, then it is best to select another teacher.
A general rule of thumb is that if the student has not had a real conversation with the teacher over the course of the academic year, then this is probably not a teacher that can provide a strong reference. The recommender will only be able to provide information on the student's grades and few insights into the student's personality. Again, the LOR goes beyond grades and excellent projects/essays.
The right recommender can make all the difference
From Day One in high school it is advantageous to the student to develop relationships with teachers in diverse disciplines. One reason for this is that some colleges require LORs from faculty in different disciplines.Another reason is that the best LORs generally come from a teacher/mentor who knows the student. For example, if a student earned the highest grade in the class but never interacted with the teacher, this may not be a situation in which the teacher will produce a strong recommendation letter. The final grade a student receives in a course only tells one part of the story - it is the culmination of classroom activities, projects, and tests. The recommendation letter is a platform for a teacher to address the potential of the student beyond the four walls of the classroom. So, a student doesn't want his LOR to come from a member of his fan club, but from the President of his/her fan club. Taking that into account, generally, recommenders should be teachers from 11th or 12th grade.
From my own experience reviewing applications, (D.J.B), if a student's recommender states that the student is very punctual, has done well on tests, and has never missed an assignment, then that doesn't really strengthen the student's application. This could be said about many of the top-tier students. Especially in the context of someone who reads two to three applications an hour for several hours a day. However if the teacher has a specific example of situations and or events where the student has shone, then the reader of the LOR gets a better sense of the student and his/her personality. In fact, a lukewarm recommendation can hurt an otherwise strong application package. Recall, the LOR is one of the few components of a college application that the student doesn't directly write so it is given an in-depth examination and could have a major impact on the decision to accept or reject the student. So a student get a strong recommendation letter?
Six items to provide a Recommender
Now that we have established that the relationship between the student and recommender is important, we suggest six items to provide the recommender. The purpose of these materials is to tell the recommender things that they may not know about the student and to help jog the recommender's memory of what the student was like in class. These six items will help the recommender compose a strong, student-specific LOR (see Figure).
Figure caption: The 6 items to present to the recommender To get a strong and student-specific letter it is best to provide the potential recommender with: a resume, a short paragraph about each of three class experiences the student remembers from the course, a list of the student's strengths and weaknesses, a short description of how the class the recommender taught the student ties into the student's future goals, if the recommender has an intake form that should be completed, and, and list of the student's career plans.
Item 1: Resume
This is a very specific type of resume that is more like a curriculum vitae (CV). A great description of the differences between a resume and a CV can be found here. Briefly, the resume should include all relevant activities and experiences with a detailed description. For example a professional resume might have a line item like this: NHS membership 2013-2014. What is the NHS? How does one become a member? A good resume for a recommender would describe this activity as follows. National Honor Society (NHS) member 2013-2014, membership requires excellent scholarship (GPA >X.Y, Z hours of community service, etc.)
When to begin? Think about starting this document the summer before 9th grade and constantly add to it. Google Docs and other cloud-based programs allow you to archive and easily update and locate a resume. Each summer reflect on the activities from the prior school year and update it.
Item 2: Class experiences
To do this the student should provide the recommender a list of three specific experiences from the class. This is particularly useful for recommenders, because it tells them what the student enjoyed from their class.
Item 3: Strengths and Weaknesses
Composing a list of the student's strengths and weaknesses will take some self reflection. It gives the recommender insight into the student's personality and character.
Item 4: Connect class to future goals
If applicable, the student should provide a small description of how the class will tie into his/her future and studies in college.
Item 5: Recommender's Intake forms
Teachers that are commonly asked for LORs may have their own intake forms and/or list of requirements to secure the recommendation. It is a good sign when a teacher is a popular choice for LORs. Through the course of high school a student can talk with classmates and upperclassmen to get the scoop on teachers that write the best recommendation letters. Ideally, the student should get this at the end of eleventh grade so that the student can work on it during the summer before senior year.
Item 6: Student's intentions
The student should let the recommender know the student's intentions. Why does the student want to attend college? What does he/she want to study? Why this set of colleges?
Early decision/action and the college counselor LOR
What about early action/decision? If the student is applying early action or early decision to any university, the deadline will most likely be early November. This may influence whom the recommender is because he/she will only be approximately two months into the school year which is not enough time to really get to know the teacher in most cases. Think back to junior year for a recommender and, possibly a 10th grade teacher if the coursework was rigorous.
We would be remiss if we did not mention that many schools also require an LOR from the student's college advisor/counselor. This type of LOR is discussed in greater detail here.
Students should think about recommendation letters early in the application process. It is important to choose recommenders wisely and to provide them with the proper materials to help them to write a strong, student-specific recommendation letter.
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