Great Recommendations are Essential for Getting into Great Colleges: So How Can You Get Them?

Many students working toward going to a great college or university ask me questions like: “How can I get great letters from my recommenders?” Even if you’re a senior, its not too late to try the things I suggest below.

No matter how introverted you may be, or how intimidating you may find your potential recommenders, building a few high-quality connections to people who know, like, and thoroughly respect you will be far more helpful to you anything else you can do to get good recommendations.

Some parents use gifts to incentivize recommenders to write very positive letters for students. This is a very risky strategy.

No matter how complimentary a recommendation may be, if there isn’t plenty of substantive information on you, your interests, and the interactions that person had with you in their letter, admissions offices will see your reference doesn’t really know you. They will therefore discount the letter….and possibly you, too.

Get to know a few potential recommenders as early as possible. Even if you don’t end up asking for a letter from them, learning to interact in an environment that is partly social and partly business will be invaluable in your future life and work.

There are several ways you can facilitate this kind of interaction. Sometimes you can connect with teachers in classes or your supervisor in whatever jobs you take during school. These are the easiest ways forward. Participating in extracurricular clubs or programs run by your school, church or community can also lead to good recommendations. You can demonstrate that you care about something the sponsor is involved in. Active participation also lets you show that you can be effective and responsible as part of a group. Letters from job supervisors may also show this.

Boarding school has lots of opportunities to interact with teachers on an informal basis. Take advantage of chances to spend informal time with your teachers. If informal interactions aren’t easy for you, ask your parents to invite some of your favorite teachers to lunch or dinner when your family visits you. If you’re in day-school, invitations to meals may also be an option. You and your parents will have to determine whether they are acceptable in your school’s culture.

If you don’t want to show favoritism, your family can, of course, also invite a large number of people to a party or other event celebrating one of your significant accomplishments. Invitations to events like this recognize not only your achievements but also the part other people had in helping you. This kind of recognition goes a long way to encourage your potential references to write for you in the best light they can. They can also get more material on “who you are” to include in their letters on the outstanding person and candidate you have become.

Continue to spend time interacting with people with whom you had strong relationships in earlier parts of your life as you get older. Doing so is as easy as sending them an E-mail. Most of your college recommendations should probably come from people you interact with during high-school. That said, colleges are very open to letters from people you knew at earlier stages of your life if that information helps them understand “who you are.” This knowledge, wherever it comes from, helps them decide if you are likely to be a good fit for the community of scholars and contributors to society they have built and want to maintain. These ideas can be equally useful for anyone being recruited for athletics.

Giving highly detailed responses to any questionnaires you receive about you and your interests is very effective in offering your recommenders the knowledge they need about “who you are” and what you want to do. Detailed answers are extremely helpful to referees because they get more information to use in crafting the best possible letters. Writing thorough answers to all of the questions you are asked in this paperwork is, therefore, an essentially important use of your time that can make the difference between being admitted or rejected at colleges you want to go to.

I’ve already mentioned how important practice in building relationships with possible recommenders can be. Learning how to do this is an essential long-term life skill. I say this because you don’t stop getting recommendations once you get to college. Your professors, deans, coaches, and job supervisors will write you recommendations for the rest of your life.

How you build those relationships will change somewhat as you get older. For instance, whereas your family may need to reach out to your teachers when you are in middle or high-school, you must make contact as a college student. There are very strict—and often strictly enforced—rules about “people with power” seeking contact with individual students outside of class. These rules protect everyone from a variety of interactions that could prove scandalous or otherwise difficult for all concerned.

College students, therefore, have to take the initiative. They have to reach out to people they want to work with now, or who may be able to offer connections to people with internships or desirable positions after graduation. Doing this is not as hard as many think. No matter how intimidating they seem, most faculty and potential employers love to talk about themselves and their work. So, going up to someone and saying: “Professor Taylor, I’m totally fascinated by the lecture and wanted to learn more about this topic,” is very likely to get you the chance to meet with her during her office hours.

You then only need to have a few leading questions to get a professor to go into great detail on their work and, possibly, how you can contribute to it. By learning to connect with recommenders early, you’ll develop an essential skill that can help you not only get into college but also succeed there and in your career after you graduate.

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