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How to get Great Letters of Recommendation

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Letters of recommendation tell colleges who you are, and give them an expert perspective on who you are as a person and a scholar. Of course, the importance of recommendation letters causes a great deal of stress for students, who want to know: How do I get a great letter of recommendation?

In this article, we’ll go over who you should ask for letters of recommendation, and how you should go about asking. We’ll first explain what separates a good letter from a bad one (with examples), and why this matters so much for your college applications. Let’s get started!

Good and Bad Letters

Here’s a pair of recommendation letters. Read them carefully; one is an example of a well-written letter, while the other is lacking. As you read the letters below, consider what each tells you about the student it recommends, and whether you would let this student into a university if you were an admissions officer.

Example #1

To the admissions committee:

I am honored to recommend John Doe for admission to your institution. I taught John as a junior in my AP English Language and Composition course during the 2021-2022 school year. His work in my class was defined by his logical mindset, and he demonstrated critical thinking and problem-solving abilities that exceeded those of many of his peers. I have no doubt that John will make an outstanding addition to your university and to your engineering program.

John indicates to me that he hopes to pursue engineering, and this is a wise choice for him. His work in my course evinced impressive depth and breadth of understanding in a variety of areas of thought, particularly the sciences. His contributions to a group research paper at the end of the first nine weeks represented his best work in my class, and evinced his ability to rationally assess information and synthesize it to form a coherent and convincing argument. In the paper, John argued for several alternatives to imprisonment for convicts diagnosed with mental illness, particularly psychopathy. He provided ample statistical support and analysis drawn from his extensive research, ultimately illustrating in convincing fashion that the current paradigm of imprisonment and high recidivism indicates a need for substantial change in the way the justice system addresses psychopaths. The argument he presented in the piece suggests his readiness for future research, and I would not be surprised to see him one day contribute to advances in his field.

John is dedicated to, and diligent in, his studies. While he is certainly a capable student of English, he seems to be more naturally inclined to the STEM fields. He often had to work very hard in my class to maintain his high marks, but he did so admirably. At the end of the year, his hard work paid off as he earned a passing score of 3 on the AP English Language and Composition AP exam.

Beyond the classroom, John has gained a wealth of experiences that have readied him for rigorous postsecondary work. A man of the world, he has lived in seven countries all over the world and experienced considerable diversity in his travels as he learned to value such diversity. He developed his passion for engineering through ID Tech coding camps at Rice University, where he gained firsthand experiences in coding, video game development and robotics. He also interned at Code Park in Houston as a teaching assistant, providing educational opportunities in coding for underprivileged youth in the Houston area. John also volunteers at Colonial Oaks Senior Living, where, as he puts it, he is able to “help [his] community and give back to a generation that laid the path for [him],” and with the ATA Turkish Festival, through which he is able to celebrate help to raise awareness about his own culture.

Once again, I recommend John Doe with no reservations. If there is anything that I can do to further his candidacy, please do not hesitate to follow up with me via the contact information provided below.

Example #2

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.

What a Good Letter Does

Now that you’ve read the example letters, which one appealed to you more? Which painted a better and more engaging picture of the student?

The major take-away from comparing these letters is that a strong letter is personally tailored to a student, while a weak one could be written about anyone, with a new name added into place.

A strong letter tells colleges something new about the student. Colleges already know a student’s grades, test scores, extracurriculars, honors, and how they portray themselves; however, they do not know how an applicant is seen by others. The first letter succeeds by giving the college a clearer view of how the applicant looks from a more objective third person perspective, rather than a subjective first person one.

Schools already know

Schools don’t know

Grades

A student’s presence in a classroom

Test scores

Study habits

Names of extracurriculars

How a student has developed personally because of their activities

Student honors

Attitude towards learning

A strong letter provides concrete information about who you are, as a scholar, an athlete, a tutor, or however else the writer views you; while simultaneously offering insight into your core characteristics. If you struggled in school due to personal matters, then the letter provides context for whatever may have caused the struggle, be it illness, financial hardship, or another personal matter. If you had achievements beyond the norm, the letter puts those in perspective, measured against the teacher’s years of experience. 

In the first letter:

  • John’s teacher praises his work ethic, and gives context for a less than stellar AP score.
  • John is contextualized based on the teacher’s years of experience.
  • The teacher gives multiple examples and anecdotes of John’s work ethic and achievement.

In the second letter:

  • John’s teacher is vague about what John did.
  • There is no additional context given.
  • There are no examples provided, just generic praise.

Thus a good letter:

Does: 

Doesn’t: 

Give context for who a student is

Use generalities

Use concrete examples of a student’s accomplishments

Damn with faint praise

Provide examples of how a student acts in an academic environment

Read like a form letter

Support points with evidence

Only describe the student in vague terms

It is clear that getting good letters of recommendation is a key part of an application, but  – you may be asking – how does a student ensure the letters they get are good?

 

Getting Good Recommendations

When approaching a recommender, it is important to remember that most teachers are asked to write 15, 20, or even more letters of recommendation every year, and have only a finite amount of time to devote to letter writing. Thus, you should show proper respect and gratitude for the teachers who accept your request, and give them sufficient time to write their letters.

The most important part of asking for letters of recommendation is asking for them from teachers or advisors who know you. Teachers want to help students, and will not actively write bad letters, but they have to have material to work with. Teachers who do not believe they are able to write a good letter for a student will often tell the student they should ask another teacher for a letter instead.

Letters are also required from counselors, who may or may not have a close relationship with each student, depending on the scope of their duties. These letters can still be helpful, so long as the writer is open about their lack of in-depth knowledge about a student. These often provide more information about the rigor of the school and the context of your academic achievements.

You should be conscious of their demands upon a teacher’s time when requesting letters, and not wait until the last minute to do so. Asking for a letter a week before a deadline is a ready way to get either a rush job, or a polite but firm refusal. 

You should request letters from teachers you know well, in classes you actively and eagerly participate in, who know you by name, and are familiar with your particularities. It is also possible to request letters from non-teacher mentors, such as bosses, coaches, or other key non-family adults in your life. The key to remember is familiarity, the recommender should know you well, and have a positive impression of you.

This form is what your teacher fills out when they submit your letter of recommendation. When asking for a letter, or composing a brag sheet, consider how the teacher you are asking will answer the prompts from the Common App.

Before asking a person for a letter, consider your relationship with them, and whether you are the sort of student and person they could advocate for unreservedly. Do not ask for letters from people who are prestigious but do not know you well, such as your parent’s friends or employers, as these letters will not add anything concrete to your application.

Most colleges want one or two letters, and they want them from teachers in one of the core academic subjects: math, English, science, social studies, and foreign languages. If you are getting two letters, it is best to request one from a humanities or social studies teacher, and one from a math or sciences teacher. If one of your teachers has a connection to a school you are applying to, it is good to ask them for a letter, as they will be able to speak to the school from a place of experience. If you are interested in majoring in the arts, an additional letter from an instructor in that field is helpful, and required by some programs.

Don’t ask for additional letters of recommendation unless there is something more that needs to be said. While some colleges may accept them, your application is already many pages long, and you don’t want to burden admissions officers with unnecessary reading.

Final Thoughts

Letters of recommendation are a key component of your college application, as they offer admissions officers an authoritative look at who you are and what you’ve accomplished. They often hold a lot of weight, and poor recommendation letters can sink an otherwise great application, while stellar ones can give an application the extra push it needs towards acceptance. 

We hope this guide has explained what makes a letter of recommendation work, and given you the tools you need to get great letters of recommendation of your own. Of course, a college application requires more than just letters of recommendation. If you want to learn how we can help you craft your own application, schedule a free consultation today. We’ve helped hundreds of students achieve their collegiate dreams, and are always happy to hear from you.

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