Thursday, April 18, 2024

How to Get a Top College Recommendation Letter: The Ultimate Guide

Welcome to the college application season! You spend hours doing your research, tackling all the application basics but uh-oh — your chosen college also needs a letter of recommendation.

Since GPAs and test scores are not enough to tell admissions offices who you are, colleges rely heavily on a referee to vouch for you through what is often the most important part of the application: the recommendation letter.

With other application basics under your belt, a stellar recommendation is your chance to stand out. Don’t want to let a simple letter stand in the way of your college dream? Here’s how you can get that killer letter of recommendation for college!

What Admissions Committees Want to See

Admissions committees want to know you better. Besides your GPA, grades, and test scores, committees want to hear about your strengths, accomplishments, and what you have to offer. They’re looking for insight into your potential as a college student.

While admissions committees don’t expect all students to score top grades or lead a club, they certainly appreciate students with unique individual pursuits and a love for learning. Your recommendation letters should persuade committee members that you would be an asset to the institution.

READ MORE: What Do Colleges Look for? 9 Ways to Stand Out to Admissions Committees 

When to Ask for Letters of Recommendation

Unless you want your referee to rush with your letter, ask for recommendations at least a month in advance. Keep an eye on the calendar — if you’re applying for early action or early decision, you’ll need to start asking your teachers as soon as September or October. For regular applications, mid-November is a good time to start asking, considering the busy schedule and vacations in the coming months.

Some counselors and teachers might require even more time. Check in with your guidance counselor around the start of your senior year to get an idea of when you should start discussing recommendation letters. Rule of thumb: sooner is better than later.

If you’re wondering why your referee needs a month or more to write a one-page letter, remember that it takes time to deliver a thoughtful, well-written recommendation. Plus, your letter is not the only thing on their mind. They might have a dozen papers to grade, not to mention other letters of recommendation to write. Don’t pile your request on them a week before your deadline!

Whom to Ask to Write Your Recommendation Letter

Not sure whom to ask to write your letter? Colleges typically accept recommendation letters from the following people:

  • High school teachers — preferably from your junior or current year — who taught you in a subject that aligns with your desired college major
  • Elective teachers (such as fine arts, physical education, or music) you’ve had for several years
  • An employer from an internship or summer job
  • An advisor from a club or activity outside of school 

Choose someone who has known you for years and would be enthusiastic to write about you. If you’re unsure, politely ask whether they would be comfortable with the task.

Teacher assisting student
A teacher that you have a great relationship with is the perfect person to write your college recommendation letter. Photo: Kampus Production/Pexels

Whom NOT to ask:

If you’re still looking for clarification on whom can write your recommendation letter, here’s a list of people who don’t qualify:

  • Your cousin who teaches fifth grade (or anyone who is related to you)
  • A teacher who only taught you for a short period (they would remember you vaguely, if at all)
  • A famous person who doesn’t know you well (“Hey! This is Senator Williams. Mandy is a great student. You should consider her for your law program” sounds obscure and insincere)
  • A close friend (unless your college asks specifically for a peer recommendation)

Take a look at your school’s preferences before asking someone. Some schools, often the Ivy Leagues, may ask for up to three recommendation letters — one or two from your teachers and a third from your counselor.

Others, such as Dartmouth and Davidson, “strongly encourage” peer recommendations from classmates and friends. In any case, pick someone who can vouch for your academic excellence and knows you on a personal level.

How to Ask for a Letter of Recommendation

You did your research, chose a college (even during the pandemic), tackled the application basics, and now need to provide letters of recommendation.

While it’s perfectly normal to feel queasy about asking for a favor, remember, teachers expect this. Some of them might have written hundreds of recommendations before. It’s part of their job.

Always try to ask for a letter of recommendation in person. If that is not possible, send an email and follow up over the phone. Clearly explain why you are asking this person for a recommendation, adding what you would like them to cover in the letter. This will help the referee understand what the most relevant points are for your application.

What to Say When Asking

If you’re asking someone for a recommendation letter face-to-face, prepare what you’ll say beforehand. Instead of bumping into your counselor in the hallway and asking, “Can you write me a recommendation letter?” consider something like this:

“I enjoyed your biology classes so much that I’m now considering going for my bachelor’s degree in zoology from College X. Since I’ve learned so much from you, I would really appreciate it if you wrote me a letter of recommendation for college. Is that an option?”

Keep it simple but make your request clear.

If you’re asking for a letter over email, remember to:

  • Clarify your request in the subject line (for example “Recommendation letter request”)
  • Introduce yourself, let them know you enjoyed their class or appreciated their counseling, and make a note of your achievements (attach a few assignments, if possible)
  • Check your tone — try to remain professional throughout
  • Keep it short and purposeful

READ MORE: How to Write an Email to Your Professor

What Details to Share With Your Reference

It’s helpful to share anything you want to go into your recommendation letter and all the details your referee needs to know about the guidelines. This includes:

  • Practical information such as word limit, deadlines, and how to submit
  • Grades and test scores
  • A resume
  • Special projects or activities you were involved in 
  • Your strengths, accomplishments, and any aspects of your personality you want to highlight
  • Personal anecdotes to lighten the mood
  • A “brag sheet” — a short document explaining who you are and what makes you special

This is not the time for modesty — share everything that makes your letter more than just data, grades, and test scores. At the same time, don’t drown your referee in a sea of information. Share only stuff that you need for a stellar application.

How to Get a Killer Recommendation Letter for College

Now that you know the basics of getting a letter of recommendation, it’s time to make sure you get mind-blowing letters that will stand out from the rest. To ensure your story moves mountains (and the most selective admissions committees), here are a few tips:

Establish a Relationship With Your Instructor

We hate to let you in on this secret, but teachers are human. Yes! They like it when you appreciate them after a class or ask them questions that demonstrate your interest in their subject. So go the extra mile and show them you are an eager, conscientious student.

Obviously, you will get along better with some of them than with others. But that’s okay, as long as you’re not in their bad books. Remember, it’s crucial that your teacher knows you well and has faith in your abilities so that they can write a convincing letter of recommendation.

Pick Your Referees Carefully  

The first rule of a recommendation is this: get a great letter, not a great person to write it for you. Admissions officers won’t be impressed by the celebrity status of the referee. It’s generally better to get a glowing and personal letter from your fine arts teacher than a stock-standard letter from a manager at a company where you interned two years ago.

Share Specific Stories With Your Referee That Illustrate Your Passion

To ensure admissions officers get to know you better, share anecdotes and personal stories with your referee that you think demonstrate your outstanding abilities. In other words, show, don’t tell. This will ensure that your letter looks more than a detailed resume by giving the writer more insight into your life.

Utilize the Resources at Your School

Many colleges have career services offices and websites that offer handouts, workshops, and databases where you can get more information about the application processes. These can include recommendation letter samples or tips on how to format the letter for that specific school.

It Is Not Wrong to Write Your Own Recommendation (and Have Your Referee Sign It)

If your referee is willing to write you a recommendation but is currently occupied with other tasks, you can suggest writing your own letter of recommendation and having them sign it before submission. In any case, your referee will check the letter before signing, so rest assured any exaggeration or false information will be noted (and eliminated).

Prepare an Information Packet 

To make it easier for your referee to write the letter, prepare a packet containing every detail that might help them to prepare the recommendation, including deadlines, mailing addresses, and your brag sheet.

You can hand this packet over to them once they agree to write your recommendation. This gives them all the details they need to write smoothly and quickly and avoids them having to chase you up for more information.

How to Follow Up With Your Reference

Because your teachers and counselors will likely have other chores on their list, it’s up to you to make sure they don’t miss the deadline or forget about your recommendation. To ensure your letters are submitted on time, stay in touch with your referees and follow up with them a week after speaking with them. This gives the person enough time to write without making you seem pushy.

If you feel uncomfortable approaching your referee directly, send a friendly email asking about the status of the letter. You may also humbly point out the upcoming due date. If you don’t hear back within the next two or three days, visit them personally. 

After they’ve sent off your letter of recommendation, remember to follow up with a thank you note.

Close-up of a woman's leg with hands on a laptop
A thank you note is the perfect way to show your gratitude to the person who wrote your college recommendation letter. Photo: Peter Olexa/Pexels

Hot Tips for Getting Your Letters on Time

While the recommendation letter is the only thing in the admissions process that is not entirely in your hands, you can still ensure your letter reaches your desired college on time with a few simple tips:

  • Be the early bird — get the ball rolling way ahead of the deadline
  • Provide a pre-addressed, stamped envelope if your recommendation will be sent by post
  • Follow up and ask what else your referee needs to supplement the letter (this will also tell you if they are working on it)

Frequently Asked Questions About Recommendation Letters for College

What should I do if my reference is taking too long to write my recommendation letter?

While you don’t want to breathe down their neck, recommendation letters come with deadlines and if your referee is holding you up (even after a polite reminder), call them or visit their office directly. If that too doesn’t work, you might want to find a new referee entirely — this is why you need to plan ahead. 

Can I read my letters of recommendation?

You’re likely wondering what wonderful things your referee has to say about you. So is it possible to read your recommendation letters? The short answer is yes. But before you start tearing open envelopes, consider that colleges prefer confidential letters.

Admissions committees usually prefer recommendations where the applicant has waived the right to see the letter because they assume such recommendations will be more candid and unbiased. If you simply can’t resist knowing what your referee wrote, you must indicate in the college application portal whether you wish to read the recommendation. 

Do all colleges require letters of recommendation?

Not all schools require recommendation letters. Some universities like Penn State and the University of California do not ask for recommendations. Community colleges don’t tend to require letters of recommendation either. 








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