In one sense, letters of recommendation for college admissions are out of your control. Someone else writes them for you, often sending it off themselves and never even showing you what they wrote. Even if they do show you, you can't change it and your fate has been sealed.
But that's not the entire story.
Who you choose to write those letters of recommendation is very much in your control. Here are three tips for getting the best letters of recommendation possible from the best people possible.
1. Choose a letter writer who really knows you
The colleges you're applying to will likely ask you to provide a letter of recommendation from teachers and counselors. But not just anyone in those categories will do, according to an August 2013 article on the college education website Petersons.com.
"...Don't simply think of those classes in which you have done well: think of instructors or supervisors who are most familiar with your work and achievements," the Peterson's article reads. "Readers look for evidence of the letter writer's familiarity with your work. Without it, letters of recommendation lack credibility."
And if it comes down to a prominent academic figure who kind of knows you and an unknown teacher who really knows you well, still go with the latter, according to the Peterson's article.
"An impressive signature will not compensate for a lukewarm letter," the Peterson's article warns.
Even if you didn't get an A in the teacher's class, it doesn't mean they can't write you an excellent letter of recommendation. If that teacher saw you improve or noticed evidence of hard work and good character, their letter can still be valuable.
Choose wisely, because who you choose is the most important part of the process.
2. Give your letter writer good material to work with
Even if your endorser knows you really well, you should still give them some materials that they can reference in their letters. Here are some of those materials, according to a Huffington Post article by adMISSIONPOSSIBLE.com founder Marjorie Hansen Shaevitz.
- High school counseling office questionnaire, which is a college admissions questionnaire that some high school counselors ask students to complete
- Up-to-date activities resume
- List of colleges you're applying to and their deadlines for everything
- Recommendation forms themselves, if the college provides them
- Copies of your college applications and/or essays (if you've done them and they want to see them)
- Portfolio of work or creative projects, if applicable
A current copy of your high school transcript would also be beneficial to those you've asked to write the letters.
Whatever materials you think will be useful for the writer to have, send. Better for them to have more than necessary than not enough to write the best letter for you possible.
3. Provide the letter writer with useful information
We'd all like to think that our teachers and counselors remember everything about us, but they don't. So help them out. According to The College Board, here's some information you should provide teachers when they're writing letters of recommendation for you:
- Remind them of your participation in their class
- Point out specific work or projects you're proud of
- Tell them what you learned in class
- Bring up any challenges you overcame
- Give them the information they need to provide specific examples of your work
And according to the article, here's the information you should give counselors who are writing you a letter of recommendation:
- Talk about your accomplishments, hobbies, and plans for college and the future
- If you need to discuss part of your transcript, like low grades during one of your academic years, do so, explaining why you had difficulty and discussing how you've improved since then
If you think the information will help them write the best possible letter of recommendation for you, include it. It probably can't hurt and it could even be helpful.
If you choose the most appropriate people possible to write your recommendations and give them the best materials and most useful information for the task, then you've set yourself up for the best possible letters of recommendation you can receive. You may feel like it's out of your control, but you can drive the process to some extent.
One final note: Writing a great recommendation letter takes a lot of work. Don't forget to thank your recommendation letter writers, and let them know how much you appreciate their time and effort -- especially when you get into a great school.
"Letters of Recommendation: The Real Icing on Your College Admissions Cake," HuffingtonPost.com, Marjorie Hansen Shaevitz, September 20, 2013, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/marjorie-hansen-shaevitz/letters-of-recommendation_1_b_3960620.html
"How to Get a Great Letter of Recommendation," CollegeBoard.org, https://bigfuture.collegeboard.org/get-in/your-high-school-record/how-to-get-a-great-letter-of-recommendation
"Letter of Recommendation: How to Ask for It," Petersons.com, August 1, 2013, http://www.petersons.com/college-search/letter-recommendation-how-ask.aspx