How to Secure a Stellar Letter of Recommendation for Your College Application

For many high school students, a stellar letter of recommendation is the final piece in a strong college application. You can easily write about how talented and prepared you are for college in your personal statement, but a letter of recommendation proves it. Consider the following tips for securing a winning letter of recommendation:

Begin cultivating teacher relationships on the first day of high school
The ideal recommender--a teacher who is committed to his or her students, deeply involved in school activities, and who knows you well--can be difficult to find. This teacher may also have a number of recommendation requests from other students, and may write several letters each year. After the first dozen recommendations, he or she may rely on a template when original material runs dry.

Admissions committees can immediately recognize such form letters, which hold less weight than a genuine recommendation. To avoid this outcome, cultivate relationships with your teachers. Complete extra credit assignments, pose thoughtful questions during and outside of class, schedule after-school review sessions, join any activities that this teacher leads, and most importantly, take an interest in him or her as a person. If you can distinguish yourself in a positive light, it will show in your letter of recommendation.

Choose your recommenders carefully
It is almost always best to choose a mentor or teacher who truly knows and respects you. This person can then write in detail about your academic accolades and the quality of your character. In some cases, this individual may not be your favorite teacher. It may be someone who is familiar with your work ethic, or someone who is familiar with your long history of community service. Of course, if your favorite teacher is involved in the same extracurricular or out-of-school activities as you, this person may be well positioned to write a holistic assessment of your abilities. A letter of this caliber would be a boon to your application.

Ensure your recommenders remain informed
Remember that most high school teachers have multiple classes and may have more than 100 students in a single year. Even if your recommender is not a teacher, he or she may struggle to recall every detail you have ever shared. Thus, it is important to keep your recommenders up-to-date on your activities and grades.

If your mentor or teacher agrees to write you a letter of recommendation, consider equipping him or her with a list of your accomplishments and activities, including a description of each one. Your recommender can draw from this list when writing your letter, and you can then connect this letter of recommendation to your application essay. This is a great way to provide an outsider's perspective on the content of your personal statement.

Ask for letters of recommendation respectfully and well in advance
This may seem like an easy step, but it is perhaps the most important one. When you ask for a letter of recommendation, explain why it would mean a great deal to you to have this person's opinion as part of your application. Schedule time before or after school to discuss your college and career plans, as this will give your recommender more background. Most crucial of all, allow your recommender plenty of time, and thank him or her for the generous support.