Getting Others to Sing Your Praises in College Application Recommendations

Many letters of recommendation end up being generic and clichéd. What you want is something that is unique to you, positive and helps the readers "get" who you are as a student and person.
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Admissions Reps Pay Attention to Recs

Admissions officers pay a lot of attention to recommendations, particularly if you are applying to very selective colleges or your grades and test scores are less than optimal. Many letters of recommendation end up being generic and clichéd. What you want is something that is unique to you, positive and helps the readers "get" who you are as a student and person. You can do a lot to get that by making sure recommenders have the best, most complete information.

While not all colleges require recommendations, many do. Oddly enough, very few colleges require actual letters of recommendation; rather, they want recommenders to complete special recommender forms. One example of this is The Common Application that provides a School Report form for high school counselors and a Teacher Evaluation form for two teachers. Some applications allow students to ask others to write additional letters of recommendation. Every once in awhile, a college will ask for a peer evaluation from a fellow student.

Whom Do You Ask to Write Recommendations?

As already noted, your school counselor usually completes the School Report. If a counselor is not available, then sometimes teachers, principals, and/or vice-principals take over the job. Good choices to write teacher letters are academic subject teachers who can say something specific and unique about you as a student. Optional recommendations are best written by individuals who know you well in a context where you shine. Examples include deans, other teachers, coaches, employers and community service directors.

Which Teachers Do You Ask?

Sit down with your parents (or perhaps an older sibling or close friends) and brainstorm names of three to five potential teacher recommenders. Ask yourself:

+ With whom have I had the best relationship?

+ What classes have I enjoyed the most?

+ In whose classes have I received the best grades and/or performed in some special way?

+ Which teachers sponsored me for an award, written previous recommendations or asked me to be a teaching assistant?

+ Bottom line: who is going to totally sing my praises?

For each teacher, assign a number from 1 (terrible) to 10 (the best!) based on what kind of recommendation you think each person will write. Then pick the two with the highest scores.

Helping Recommenders Do the Best Job for You

Once you've selected your recommenders and they have agreed, YOUR job has just begun.

Particularly for public schools, counselors and teachers are simply overwhelmed by all they must do. More importantly, many write letters of recommendation during their own personal time. Therefore, one of your jobs is to make their jobs easier. Here are some ideas about how to do that:

1. Ask Early! As soon as you arrive at school in the fall, stop by the counselor office and teachers' rooms to say hello and ask them to complete the application form applicable to them. Be sure to smile and appropriately "make nice." If the person says yes, then let him or her know how much you appreciate their willingness to write on your behalf and that you will be providing information that will make his or her job easier.

2. Within the first couple weeks of fall semester, provide the counselor and teachers with:

+ Any informational materials they ask you to complete; e.g., a questionnaire, a copy of your transcript, application essays, etc.

+ An up-to-date activities resume

+ Your college list, organized by application due dates.

(Be sure to note if you plan to apply early. )

+ Ask the recommenders if they want you to them give reasons why you are interested in different colleges and be prepared to give them that information.

+ As soon as it is available, make sure that you complete your portion (usually the top) of the respective counselor and teacher forms online.

3. Make sure the information and materials you provide recommenders is neat and organized and get everything to them on schedule, if not early.

4. Some counselors and teachers like to complete hard copy recommendations. If that's the case, make sure that you provide them with an addressed (to the college admissions office), stamped envelope for every college to which they will be sending a recommendation.

5. Photocopy all materials you give to your recommenders.

6. If you apply early to colleges, sometime in November check in with your recommenders to make sure that they have sent in their forms. Then do this again once you have completed all of your applications.

7. Be sure to thank the counselor and teachers for whatever they have done for you during the application process. This is really important! Counselors and teachers are rarely thanked enough.

Outstanding letters of recommendation can make a real difference in your application packages.

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