Getting a good letter of recommendation can have a major impact on your chances of getting into the college of your choice. Overlooking this aspect of the college application process can be a mistake. Admissions authorities take these letters very seriously, and it is crucial to do everything you can to obtain the best recommendation letters possible.
While the ultimate decision of what to say depends on your letter writer, there are a few things you can do to influence how the letter turns out.
Lay the groundwork
Different colleges have different application requirements. Make a note of what each school you are interested in is asking for. Does the school require one or more recommendation letters? If they want two or more, do they all need to be written by your teachers?
Some colleges have very specific requirements as to who the letter should be from, so you will need to make sure you comply with their requirements.
If the college requirement states that recommendation letters are optional, you should still consider providing one, as it could be that crucial deciding factor when choosing between two candidates who are equally qualified.
Decide which teachers to ask
A good recommendation letter is one that does not stop at just showcasing your academic accomplishments. The letter should also highlight your personal qualities and your development and growth over time as well as your strengths and perhaps a few weaknesses. It should then go on to talk about how you have managed to overcome or work around your weaknesses. A teacher who does not know you well will not be able to do as good a job as this as a teacher who has worked closely with you for an extended period of time.
Choose a teacher that you have close and good rapport with and preferably someone in a core academic discipline. If you want to apply for a physics program, you should ideally choose your physics teacher. Your second choice would be your math, science, or English teachers. If you need more than one letter, then you might consider a sports coach or music teacher as your secondary writer.
Should you choose a teacher whose class you perform best in? Not necessarily, unless this teacher meets the earlier criteria—knowing you well enough. A teacher who knows your work and who knows you well enough to help showcase your positive personal qualities is better than a teacher who only knows about your academic accomplishments.
Someone who teaches you in an academic subject and who is also your sports coach or your extracurricular teacher would be your ideal letter writer, as they are more likely to know you on several different levels. A letter written by someone who knows you this well on an academic personal level is more likely to hit all the right notes.
Work on establishing a relationship with your teachers
Right at the start of the year you know you are going to need a recommendation letter from your teacher. You also know that your best letter is likely to come from a teacher who knows you on a personal level. With that in mind, work on establishing good relationships with your teachers.
This does not mean you have to overboard and overwhelm your teachers with an endless show of flattery. It’s the little things and small, everyday interactions that make the biggest difference. Greet your teachers every day. Work hard. Be respectful. Complete your homework and projects on time. Demonstrate your interest in the subject. Thank your teacher for any additional help extended your way.
Of course, you will not be able to know all teachers well, and that’s okay. Focus on building your relationship with a few teachers with whom you have some things in common.
Ask for recommendation letters early
Asking early is so important. Towards the end of the year teachers are busier than usual with finishing the semester, setting final exam papers or tests, taking additional classes to help students who need the extra help, and writing letters for all of the students who have waited till the last hour. After the exams are over, they are busy grading papers. With so much going on, teachers are more likely to be distracted and less likely to be focused on the content of the letter.
Firstly, a letter written under such circumstances may not turn out as well as you hoped it would be. Secondly, your teacher may find the schedule too hectic to handle even one additional request so they may decide against writing the letter. If they decide they will do it anyway, you may have to put your application submission on hold while waiting for the letter to get written. None of these are ideal situations and the best way to avert a less than stellar recommendation letter is by asking well in advance of the application process.
Always, always, ask in person. If it is difficult to meet up with that particular teacher set up an appointment and ask in person. Try to avoid putting in your request via email or over the phone. If you expect your teacher to take the time and trouble to work on a letter for you, you should be prepared to go through the trouble of requesting personally. A request put in over the phone or via email may soon be forgotten as your teacher gets busy with other chores.
Give your selected teacher all the relevant information
No matter how well a teacher knows you, it is impossible for them to know everything about you. They may not be aware of or may not remember all of your academic and non-academic achievements, what you do away from school by way of volunteering or extracurricular activities, your musical or sporting accomplishments, and your dreams and goals.
You can help your teacher write an outstanding recommendation letter for you by providing them with relevant information about yourself so they can choose which details to use and how to use it. Details to include in your write-up about yourself are your academic accomplishments, the colleges you are applying to, your short and long term goals, and list of non-academic achievements. Also mention your strengths and weaknesses and what you are doing to improve in your weaker areas.
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