5 steps to take to get better letters of recommendation
It’s the time of year when high school juniors are starting to look at the long slog between Spring Break and the end of the school year with something between sighing resignation and outright panic. AP and IB exams will take up May with Final Exams on their heels. They may be squeezing another SAT or ACT into the schedule.
And college applications will follow soon after. The best thing will be to get the hard parts of the application done before their Senior year starts.
Isn’t Junior year fun?
Letters of recommendation are sometimes an afterthought in the college application process. Most letters of them tend toward the generic: great kid, works hard, great attitude. If you’re wanting something that will add value to your application, you need to take a few steps this Spring.
Choose your recommendation carefully
A lot of time when students think about who to ask, the thought process is along the lines of which teachers they liked. It indicates a pretty good relationship, so they’re more confident that the recommendation will be positive.
One thing to keep in mind. If the teacher agrees to write the recommendation, it will almost definitely be positive. They typically won’t agree to write the letter if they don’t have good things to say. In order to make an impression, you want a letter that can specifically reference the work you’re capable of. Instead of thinking about the teacher you liked best, consider the class where you did the work you’re most proud of. It might even be a class where you had to bust your rear in order to get the grade you did. If you made a B in that AP Art History class but pulled a 4 on the exam and spent hour after hour in tutorials, the teacher is going to have specific things to reference in the letter.
You’re most likely going to ask a teacher you had your Junior or Sophomore year. Freshman year can be a little too far back, and your Senior teachers probably will have known you for only a few weeks. If you’ve got one great core teacher recommendation, you might also consider someone outside of the school with whom you’ve worked closely for a long period of time, perhaps an employer or some sort of mentor.
Ask them in the Spring your Junior year
Think about the recommendation process from your teacher’s perspective. If it’s an AP English or AP U.S. History teacher, they probably have 150 or so students on their roles this year. AP students. All of those students are planning on applying to college, and even if just 2/3 of them ask the teacher for a letter of recommendation, it’s going to mean 100 letters the teacher is trying to write next Fall.
No wonder the letters tend to be generic. The teacher is trying to get 100 letters written, all of which have about the same due date. In addition, they’re trying to learn a new batch of 150 student names and teach this year’s group of Juniors. They’re writing these letters before school, during their conference times, and after they’ve gotten their kids to bed.
Most teachers who’ve been through this have developed a process. It could be as informal as keeping a list so they stay on top of it to a more formal application process. Whatever they’ve developed, you should ask about it before the end of your Junior year.
Talk to them before or after class one day. Let them know that you’re starting to organize your college applications and you’re wondering if they’d be comfortable writing a letter on your behalf. They may ask for a resume so they have some information to use. Let them know that is something you’ll be putting together over the summer, and ask what they’re preferred process is for getting the information.
Provide them a cover letter and your academic resume
This is the key to getting a letter of recommendation that is specific. You can check out our template. We’ve highlighted the information you need to make your own. Feel free to copy and paste it into your own file.
In the cover letter, let the teacher know your reasons for choosing them. You don’t have to kiss up here, but be honest. If there’s a project you particularly enjoyed or are especially proud of, mention it. If you felt you had to work particularly hard for the grade or you discovered a new passion, you can point that out, too.
Understand the process
Different applications may have a slightly different way of submitting the recommendatio
n, but certain things are pretty standard. Once you put the person’s name and email into the system, you’re out of the picture. Any additional communication will go on between the recommender and the institution. It’s likely you’ll never see the letter of recommendation itself. Some teachers will give you a copy, but that’s just a courtesy.
At some point, you’re going to be asked if you waive your FERPA right to review the letter of recommendation. It’s a good idea to waive that right. Doing so means you won’t
be able to come back later and ask for the letter, and it’s the only way the college knows a positive recommendation is credible. The recommendation software will tell the recommender if you waived that right. It most likely doesn’t make a difference, but waiving the right means that you’ve agreed that the teacher can say their honest opinion without you ever knowing what they said.
That might sound a little scary at first. If you’ve chosen your recommender carefully and communicated well in advance with them, you most likely don’t have anything to worry about. Of course, if you don’t waive the right, then the admissions office will also wonder what you were worried about.
Monitor the process
Once you’ve made the request, you might need to watch that the recommendation has been submitted. Most of the time, this isn’t any sort of problem; however, once in a while teachers get a little bit behind. If your deadline is getting close and the recommendation hasn’t been submitted, a friendly inquiry is about all you can do. It may be frustrating, but that sort of reminder usually gets things done.
Write a “Thank You” note
This step won’t necessarily get you a better letter, but it’s an important part of the process. Handwrite a thank you note once the recommendation has been sent. You might even consider throwing in a $5 gift card to Starbucks. Or Sonic or whereever. Teachers run on caffeine and fast food. It will be greatly appreciated.
If you need more help with your college prep, contact us. We offer a FREE consultation and have programs to help you improve test scores and to put your college applications together.