Your essays, grades, and test scores are how schools get to know who you are, but they often lack important context. After all, a report card can only tell admissions officers so much and doesn’t let them know anything about your classroom presence, where your passions lie, or who you are as a student.
To remedy this, universities ask for letters of recommendation from your teachers. These weigh heavily on admissions decisions, as they provide important context about you. This causes stress for many students, as unlike other aspects of your application, you don’t have any control over letters of recommendation. We’re here to let you in on a secret: you actually do.
This is where brag sheets come in. In this article, we’ll cover what brag sheets are, how to write one, and how else you can ensure you receive stellar letters of recommendation. Let’s jump in!
What is a Brag Sheet?
Teachers do not know every student as well as they would like; this is inevitable, as most teachers have a hundred or more students each year. Thus while a teacher may like a student who asks them for a letter of recommendation, and be willing to write a letter for them, they don’t have very much to say about the student.
This can lead to generic recommendation letters; not bad, but not particularly good either. Here is an example of one such letter:
To whom it may concern:
I am writing this letter of recommendation at the request of John Doe, who is applying for admission to your school, majoring in environmental engineering or economics and data science.
I have known John in my capacity as an AP Statistics teacher at Austin High School. Based on John’s grades, character, and work ethic I would highly recommend him for admission to the university.
In class, John grasped the subject matter very quickly. He was able to adapt, work well with others, and willing to participate. He would be an asset to any major and to any major where his statistics knowledge could be applied.
This letter is not bad, but nor is it very good. At best it can be called mediocre. The problem is that the letter writer does not know the student well.
A brag sheet exists to tell your teachers about you: your interests and passions outside of class, your goals and aspirations for college, and where you see your future. This information often ends up in the letters your teachers write, which reinforces the themes you include in your own essays.
Some schools have their own brag sheets for students to fill out, which they then send to their teachers and guidance counselors. Not all schools have these, however, so sometimes students have to take the initiative and compose their own brag sheet.
How to Write a Brag Sheet
There are two forms of brag sheets: questionnaire and narrative. Most of the brag sheets distributed by schools are questionnaires, while if you write your own it will likely be narrative.
Questionnaire brag sheets ask you to answer a series of short answer questions, generally on your activities in and out of school, your academic interests, and your plans for the future. You should answer these as honestly as possible; this will help your teachers write authentic recommendation letters for you.
Narrative brag sheets tell a story and are usually around a page in length. We recommend discussing one of your extracurricular accomplishments, as most teachers likely know little to nothing about what you do outside of class (unless they happen to be the faculty advisor for one of your clubs).
Some teachers will also request a resume, and we suggest you send your resume to all of the teachers you have requested a letter of recommendation from. This will give them more information to work off of and let them add more detail to their letter.
You may worry about coming off as overly self-aggrandizing while writing a brag sheet, but that’s ok. The point of a brag sheet, as the name implies, is to celebrate your accomplishments. While you should be honest and not overstate what you have done, you shouldn’t downplay your achievements either. The point of a brag sheet is to tell teachers a story of one of your successes, that they otherwise wouldn’t know, so they can write a great letter of recommendation for you.
Finally, you should consider which values you are including in your brag sheet, as these will also likely make it into letters of recommendation. If there are specific values you emphasize in your personal statement and supplemental essays, you should mention them in your brag sheet as well. This will help make your application read as more of a unified whole, and paint a fuller portrait of you for admissions officers.
Getting Good Letters of Recommendation
Of course, a brag sheet is not the only way to make sure you get a good letter of recommendation. Now we’ll give you some tips to ensure that you get the best possible letters when you apply.
Tip 1: Think carefully about which teachers to ask.
You should ask for letters from the teachers that will be best able to describe you as a student and person, not necessarily your favorite teachers (though these may overlap). Think about which teachers you have the best relationship with, and which have the most to say about you. How have you conducted yourself in each class?
Also, be aware that the most popular teachers will be asked for the most letters. While they will try their best, teachers are only human. This is compounded by the fact that most schools want letters from teachers you had in your Junior year, further narrowing the available pool of teachers. Each teacher will only be able to write so many letters of recommendation. This leads us to our next tip.
Tip 2: Ask for a letter early.
A good letter of recommendation takes time to write. Add to this the fact that teachers have many demands upon their time already, and it’s easy to see why you should ask your teachers for letters of recommendation sooner rather than later. We recommend reaching out to teachers at the end of your junior year or the start of your senior year. We also suggest you ask your teachers for letters in person.
Tip 3: Appreciate your teachers.
This may seem like obvious advice, but we believe it is worth stating outright. Your teachers are doing you a tremendous service by writing your letters of recommendation, and you should show your appreciation for their time and effort. Thus not only should you be cognizant of their time when approaching your teachers for letters, but you should also show your appreciation later. We suggest sending them a thank-you card once admissions decisions are out, letting them know where you got in, and thanking them for their help in doing so.
A Note on FERPA
The Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) is designed to protect the privacy of students once they turn 18.
However, due to the wording, students are also allowed to read any letters of recommendation that have been written for them, unless they specifically waive their FERPA rights.
Most teachers will not write letters for you unless you waive your FERPA rights. There is a place to do so directly within the Common App, and we recommend you do so before you add recommenders within the Common App. You should have a level of trust for the teachers who you are asking to write letters for you; if you worry that they won’t write you a good letter, ask someone else.
While you will not write your own letters of recommendation, it is still within your power to ensure that the letters you receive are well-suited to help you in your admissions journey. By writing a strong brag sheet, and respecting your teachers, you will ensure that you get the best letters of recommendation possible.
College applications are stressful, especially when much of what happens is outside of your control. We’ve found that the best way to reduce that stress is to do as well as you can on the parts you can control. If you would like our help with that, schedule a free consultation today. We have a depth of experience helping students achieve their academic dreams, and are always happy to hear from you.