Many selective colleges require recommendation letters as part of their applications. Unfortunately, few students appreciate the importance of recommendations, and they often neglect to request the help of their teachers and counselors until it’s too late.
The recommendations of adults are a primary source of information about applicants. While everything a student writes is biased, the observations of adults are more reliable. Teachers and counselors are well-positioned to help an applicant because they can compare and contrast the applicant to his or her classmates.
For this reason, highly-selective colleges place great weight on recommendation letters. For example, Duke admissions representatives give numeric grades to each applicant’s recommendations, and in its roundtable decision meetings, George Washington University discusses teacher recommendations first, even before a student’s own materials.
As you might imagine, recommendation letters directly impact an applicant’s chances of admissions to a favorite university. Great letters lead to college offers. Lackluster letters lead nowhere.
The first thing a student must recognize is to give teachers and counselors enough time to write their recommendations. Educators are busy, and teaching – not writing recommendations – is their primary job duty. We advise students to approach their teachers for recommendations during the spring of the Junior year. Those who wait until the fall often find that their teachers are too rushed to write a great letter or simply do not have time to write any recommendation at all for the student. Having a fifth-choice teacher write a recommendation is a sure path to disaster.
The second “rule” is to select teachers who know you well. The best way to appear unique is to utilize teachers who can write something from their personal knowledge of the applicant. Recounting a story or observation – instead of merely copying from a student’s resume – adds significant value to an application. Talking about high achievement in class does not really provide new information, but talking about HOW a student achieves and interacts with others provides insight into the all-important human aspects of the applicant.
Third, consider providing teachers with additional insight about you. Give them more than what is requested by the school, and be selective about what you provide. Try this technique: present your recommenders with a letter from a parent which explains why the parent is proud of the student, perhaps even telling a short story to illustrate the applicant’s personal qualities. The goal is to prompt the teacher to remember similar moments observed in the classroom, which can then be included in the recommendation to make it more personal. In addition, consider giving the teachers an explanation of your college, career and life goals. This allows them to put classroom performance into a different perspective.
Fourth, ask the teacher if he or she would be willing to let you see and perhaps edit the letter before it’s submitted. Often, simple re-organization of a recommendation can make it demonstrably more powerful. In the end, the teachers are the ones who signs and upload recommendation letters, so they have final control over the finished product, but constructive editing can be extremely valuable.
Finally, be courteous enough to write personal thank you notes to your recommenders. You never know; a well-phrased and well-timed thank you might inspire a teacher or counselor to put in some extra effort on your behalf.