Getting a letter of recommendation is a necessary and important part of applying to college, but for some of you it can seem scary. The Common App now requires at least one academic letter of recommendation, but many schools require two, and you should send letters of recommendation to schools you apply to outside of the Common App as well. Generally, you want to ask two teachers from your junior year who know you well. If you are close to a former boss, mentor, or influential person it may also be a good idea to ask for them for a supplementary letter of recommendation. Asking for a letter of recommendation may seem daunting, but it’s a great opportunity to practice because you will need letters of recommendation as you move on in to the job world. Someday, when you apply to a job, graduate school, or other life-changing opportunity, you will probably be asked to produce a letter of recommendation. As someone who’s written dozens of recommendations for my former students, I can tell you that people will almost always be happy to write a recommendation for you as long as you are polite and professional.
Ask Well Before the Deadline
There’s nothing worse for a teacher than when a student asks them for a recommendation days, even hours (yes seriously), before it’s due–well, obviously there could be worse things, but you get my point. Ask the teachers who you want to write your letters at the end of junior year or at the very beginning of your senior year. This allows a few months before early decision deadlines, and you will want to ask popular teachers for letters of recommendation before the rest of your peers do. Giving them ample time to write the letter is best for both you and the writer. Your teacher will have plenty of time to articulate a thoughtful letter that highlights your best qualities. Also, you won’t have to worry about submitting the letter before your admissions deadlines, and if they happen to say no, you’ll have time to ask someone else. If your recommender doesn’t update you on the status of your letter, it’s ok to politely remind them about your recommendation and the deadline a few weeks before the deadline. Teachers have a lot on their plates and they might have simply forgotten; often they will appreciate the reminder.
Ask Someone Who Knows You Well and Help Them Out
Focus on asking teachers and mentors who you feel you have a strong connection with. A favorite teacher, guidance counselor, coach, boss, or family friend are good potential people to ask for recommendations. It is generally best to have two teachers from your junior year for your academic recommendations, as they are the ones who taught you for a full term most recently.
A strong letter filled with compelling anecdotes can go a long way in the admissions process. To ensure your letter is good, tell whomever you ask about your goals, aspirations, accomplishments, and favorite memories with them. Send them this information and your resume in an email so that they can access it whenever they are working on your letter. This makes the job of the person writing your letter easier. While it may seem strange to write about yourself, be detailed and thoughtful. It is only to your benefit. For your teachers, include a one page “highlights” resume and an info sheet for them (or brag sheet). On your info sheet, answer the following questions with as many details as you can:
What was your favorite module or chapter during the school year?
What was your favorite aspect of the class?
What did you find most difficult? How did you deal with that part?
What part of the class did you find most compelling and interesting?
What parts of this class will you take with you in the future?
Remember two things if you are going to go beyond the two academic letters and add a supplementary recommendation: 1. check to see if the school will even allow extra letters. 2. make sure it adds something new to your application. if it just adds the same info they already have, you will be wasting precious minutes on something else they could learn about you.
Thank Them and Stay in Touch
Be sure to write your recommenders a thoughtful thank you letter. If it is within your means, a small gift like a plant or a small gift card would be nice, but it really isn’t necessary. A thoughtful thank you note is sufficient–and it’s even better if it’s handwritten. Being polite and gracious is not only important for networking and later opportunities in life, but it’s just the right thing to do. Additionally, keep them updated on your college admissions journey and tell them wherever you end up going to school. They will be delighted to have helped you achieve such a great accomplishment.
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