Recommendation letters can set your application apart from the thousands of other students applying for admission into your dream college or university. Here are a few steps you can take to score excellent references when you apply for admission:
- Work hard from the start of your high school so that you get good grades and so that your teachers have a good opinion of you.
- Ask questions in class, whether during class or after class, from the teacher, so that they get to know you personally. The questions will also help you understand the course material better and improve your grades.
- Take part in extracurricular activities. Many of these are usually headed by teachers in your high school, and so they are also a good way to get to know your teachers better. And they will also get to see a more creative, passionate side of you. As I mentioned in my previous post, colleges want to see that you have a life outside your textbooks. They want an all-rounder applicant.
- If some teachers, or your high school principal, etc, need help with some work, whether paid or unpaid, it is a good chance to volunteer and show how responsible you are, as well as thorough and professional.
- Shortlist the teachers you think will give you good recommendations. The best choices are those that you have a good rapport with or those in whose classes you had the best grades. You need at least 3 recommendations. It may be good to have 4 or 5 teachers shortlisted, since some teachers will prove better references for certain colleges as opposed to others. For instance, in colleges where you have applied for a sports scholarship, a recommendation from your coach would be mandatory. However, you may prefer a recommendation from your Math teacher (provided you got a good grade in his course) for applying to MIT or Harvard. It is also good to have a couple of extra references on the side, since it is possible that a teacher may refuse to give a recommendation.
- If you had a bad semester or year in high school, with below par grades, find a teacher who knew the problem you had, whether a broken leg, a life-threatening disease, parents’ divorce, etc. Ask your teacher to explain away your bad grades in their letter, and to show the positive sides of you in that semester or year. For instance, how you faced your adversity head on, how you came out stronger from it, etc.
- All the recommendation letters do not have to be from teachers who have taught you. For instance, if a college asks for 3 recommendation letters, you can take one from your boss at the place you work at part-time. It can also be from whoever is heading the extracurricular activity you take part in, whether a teacher, a coach, or an outsider. For instance, the director of the soup kitchen you volunteer at. The main formula to remember is 2 recommendation letters from teachers who taught you and one from an employer, a superior in some extracurricular activity, or a 3rd teacher.
- Some colleges ask for personal references, for instance from a close friend. I guess they wish to know how you are in your personal life, in addition to the image you portray during school hours. In such a case, choose a friend who knows you the best, who has seen you in good times and bad, and for whom you have been there in good times and bad. This should be a friend who knows your hidden dreams and aspirations, and knows all your strengths and weaknesses. And this should be a friend who deeply cares about you and does not have any hidden jealousies or maliciousness towards you. After all, you want to ensure he/she writes a strong recommendation letter for you, rather than using it as an opportunity to get back at you.
- 3-6 months before your first admission deadline make sure to ask the teachers for recommendation letters. The teachers will have to write these letters for dozens of students, and it is only plain courtesy to give them as much of a heads up as possible. And, frankly speaking, you don’t want your teacher to think you are irresponsible because you gave them a very late notice, just when he/she is about to write a recommendation for you that will determine your entire future.
- Note down the recommendation requirements for all colleges you apply to. Many electronic ones will give a link for your teacher to use to fill in your recommendation. Some may allow you to upload a PDF document instead. Some may require you to send in a hard copy. And still some may require the hard copy to be sealed and stamped by your teacher, showing that you have not had access to it. It is very important, therefore, to note what exactly each college wants.
- A few days after you have asked your teachers for recommendations, and got their approval, send them an email. Using the above list of requirements, write a separate email to each of your shortlisted teachers, giving him/her the exact instructions that he/she needs to follow. You should mention which colleges you would like a recommendation from them for, and what steps they need to follow to fill in the recommendation form for each of the separate colleges.
- Don’t forget to follow up a few weeks before the application deadline.
For more articles on college and university admissions, here are links to my post on how to use high school to prepare for college, and the 6 main parts of a college application. Keep tuned in the following days as I provide hints on how to write your college essay and save money during the application process.