Get Great College Recommendation Letters

Published by Wendy Nelson on

LetterIf you have a high school senior who will be working on college applications this fall, one important thing he or she needs to know is how to get great college recommendation letters.  There are a few simple tips that will help avoid mediocre college recommendation letters and help your student submit meaningful recommendation letters with his or her college applications.

Not all colleges require recommendation letters as part of the college application.  Those that do are looking at recommendation letters as a supplement to what the applicant personally provides in the application.  With that in mind, understand that the college wants to learn something new about the applicant beyond what is shown through grades, test scores, an activity list and essays.  They are looking for an outside perspective from a teacher or counselor who is well-acquainted with the student.

Share the tips below with your student to help him or her get high-quality college recommendation letters.

How to Get Great College Recommendation Letters

  1. Start Early – Teachers and counselors will be juggling many requests for recommendation letters.  Know when your first college applications are due and plan ahead.  If you have applications due in November, early September is a great time to start requesting recommendations.  Do not expect to give someone only a week or two to produce a good recommendation letter!
  2. Pick the Right Person – You probably won’t have a choice when it comes to counselor recommendations, but with teach recommendations it is important to pick the right teacher.  Pick someone who knows you well and who understands your strengths and weaknesses.  Some ideas:  1)Pick a teacher who watched you struggle and then excel in a class, 2)Pick a teacher whose class is closely aligned with your intended major, 3)Pick a teacher who might not have been your favorite, but taught you a lot and helped you grow, 4)Pick a teacher who you got to know really well and who became a personal mentor to you.
  3. Communicate “What and When” – Make sure to tell those you are asking for recommendation letters from when you need the letter and what it is for.  Are you looking for a general recommendation letter that can apply to any school, program or scholarship?  Or are you looking for something written for a specific school, program of study or scholarship?  You must decide how you want to handle recommendation letters overall – do you want to ask for many different ones that are more specific, or do you want more generic ones that you can use for multiple purposes?
  4. Communicate “Why” – If you tell your recommender why you selected him or her to write a recommendation letter, you may receive a better outcome.  While you could mention this when asking, it may be even more effective if you write a note expressing the reason.  For example, “I wanted to have you write a recommendation letter for me because you helped me so much in Chemistry last year.  You watched me struggle at the beginning of the year and you patiently explained things so I understood them.  You saw my progress throughout the year.”
  5. Provide Supplemental Information – In my last post, I wrote about Creating an Activity Resume.  It is a good idea to give your recommender a copy of your activity resume.  This will help remind or inform him or her of all the things you have done while in high school.  He or she may be able to pull out some specific items to talk about or explain how you successfully juggled a lot of things.
  6. Have a Good Attitude – Remember, writing a good recommendation letter for you is not anyone’s obligation.  They are doing you a favor and you need to be appreciative and be patient.  When you get about two weeks before the due date, it is fine to check in to see when your recommender expects to have your letter completed, but do it nicely!   It is always a good idea to give your recommender a Thank You note after he or she has completed your recommendation letter.

When I speak to high school juniors, I always tell them to start building high-quality teacher and mentor relationships because senior year they are going to need recommendation letters from adults who know them well.  This can be easier to do with teachers than with counselors, but most schools do ask for a counselor recommendation.

If your student has not developed a good relationship with his or her guidance counselor, now is the time.  Have your student schedule a time to sit down with the counselor to discuss future plans.  The more the counselor knows about a student’s future goals and concerns, the more they can draw from when writing a recommendation and the more they can help your student focus on the right things in the college application process.