Writing college applications can prove to be a big job—especially when you have a “story” to tell. Students tend to focus on the essay—and, sometimes, the interview—in conveying key messages. In doing so, they completely overlook the potential source of powerful testimonials to their stories. And that source would be letters of recommendation from counselors, teachers, coaches, and mentors.
Letters of recommendation are important to admission officers because they provide contextual interpretation for your academic performance. Writers share critical insight into your work habits and learning style as well as your ability to respond to challenges and setbacks. They can help explain irregularities in your academic program and/or performance and shed light into key factors that define your learning environment.
So, who should you choose to write your letters? The people best positioned to support your application are those who know you well from your recent work in the classroom. They are familiar with your intellectual abilities and academic skills. They have watched you respond to a range of challenges in the classroom and understand your capacity and desire to learn. They are your teachers, counselors, and advisors; they are your champions. Let them help you.
The following are tips for securing letters of recommendation that can strengthen the overall presentation of your “story” as a college applicant.
- Choose teachers who know what you can do—the teachers who push you and don’t let you settle for “good enough.” They are the folks who are more likely to be invested in your long-term success. Contrary to popular belief, your most insightful supporter may not be the teacher regarded as the most popular. Generally speaking, at least one of your recommenders should be someone who is familiar with your critical thinking and communication skills.
- Give your counselor and teachers the courtesy of time to think about and prepare a letter of recommendation for you. Approach them sooner than later. If you arrive at the start of your senior year—and still have not asked folks to write on your behalf—you compromise their ability to do a good job on your behalf. Extend the same consideration (time, access to information) you would want if confronted by a writing assignment that counts for most of your grade in a class.
- Talk with your recommenders about why college is important to you. Share your dreams and ambitions. Reflect on your strengths and weaknesses. If there are factors beyond your control that have influenced your ability to perform as you would have liked, make sure your recommenders are sufficiently informed so they can help you tell your “story.” Give them the necessary information and insight so they can write well-balanced letters on your behalf.
- Remind them of your “aha” moments. It is likely that the chosen teacher is someone who made a difference in your learning experience. It is also quite possible that the teacher does not have immediate recall of the circumstances surrounding the key moments of “discovery” for you in the classroom. By re-living such moments of revelation, you give your teacher the basis for a narrative to use in writing on your behalf.
- Share a brief resume of your activities and achievements. While your teachers know you well from your work in their respective classrooms, they may not have the benefit of the “big picture” that defines you.
- Provide a list of your application deadlines and the forms (the appropriate pre-addressed, pre-posted envelopes) used by each of your colleges for letters of recommendation. While your recommenders may elect to use their own forms, they will still benefit by being able to respond to the guidelines and information requests provided by the colleges to which you are applying.
When you ask someone to write on your behalf, you will be able to waive your right of access to that letter. Do it. Your recommenders need to be able to provide complete and balanced perspectives without having to worry about how you or your parents will react to what they have written. If your recommenders are concerned about being second-guessed in any way, they will be less inclined to share the kind of information that is useful to admission officers in the credential review. Give them some space and trust they will act in your best interests. The people you have chosen for this task are your strongest supporters and want to see you do well.
Written by Peter Van Buskirk, Director of Student Advocacy