Letters of recommendation are an often-overlooked part of the college application process. Although many students don’t take this step seriously, letters of recommendation can have a significant impact on your admissions chances.
Here are four tips for getting recommendation letters that will wow the admissions committee and give you the best possible chance of getting into your dream school.
Tip #1: Plan ahead!
As with all steps in the college planning journey, preparation is the key to success. Every college has different application requirements, so it’s important to know what you will need.
Make sure you know how many letters are required … and how many of those letters must come from one of your junior-year teachers. Some colleges will specify exactly whom they want to see letters from. Other colleges may be more flexible or may even say that recommendation letters are “optional.” (Remember, when a college says part of the application is “optional,” you still need to do it if you want a good chance of getting in!)
Tip #2: Build relationships with your teachers!
The best letters come from teachers who know and like the student on a more personal level. The more a teacher likes you, the more likely they are to spend time giving the letter a personal touch.
When reading thousands of recommendation letters, it is easy to see which ones are “copy-and-paste” form letters versus ones where the teacher has a lot to say about a student. If you want your teachers to be able to gush about what makes you so special, you have to get to know them.
One of the easiest ways to do this is by simply showing your teachers that you care about their classes. Show up to class prepared every day. Participate, listen, and ask questions. You don’t even need to be the most vocal student in class to build a good relationship with your teacher. If you feel more comfortable asking questions or asking for help one-on-one after class, go for it!
Simple interactions before and after class can also make a big difference. Don’t rush past your teachers in the hallways; smile and say hello! Ask your teachers how their weekends went. Talk to them about your athletic and extracurricular activities. At the end of class, comment on what you learned that day. It’s as easy as saying, “Thanks for the great class! ____________ was helpful/interesting. Have a great day!” It’s just about showing that you are interested and making an effort.
Of course, you will probably connect with some teachers better than others. That’s okay! As long as you’re able to build good relationships with a few teachers, you should have enough options when it comes time to request letters of recommendation.
Tip #3: Ask in advance!
College application season is a very busy time of the year for teachers. Some teachers are asked to write 100 (or more) recommendation letters each year. It’s important to get on your teachers’ lists as early as possible, so as not to delay your admissions decisions.
Many schools have a process where the student makes a formal request online. Still, it is a great idea to talk to your teacher in person about your request, to make sure you are on his or her radar. In fact, I would recommend speaking with your teachers in person during the second half of your junior year, to give them a heads up.
It helps to say something about why you’d like this particular teacher to write you a letter (“I gained a lot from being in your class, and you helped me to grow as a writer/thinker/etc.”). Ask if your teacher would be willing to write a positive letter of recommendation for you as you apply to colleges this year. In almost every case, the teacher will say yes. When your teacher says yes, remember to say thank you!
Tip #4: Say thank you!
When your teacher agrees to write a letter of recommendation for you, you should follow up your conversation with a personal thank you note. Acknowledge your teachers’ busy schedules, and let them know how much you appreciate their help in the college process.
Don’t wait for your teacher to finish the recommendation letter before sending your thank you note. Thanking your teacher right away shows your appreciation, serves as a reminder of your conversation, and helps you to stand out from the other students.
Later in the year, remember to let your teachers know where you’ve been accepted! Teachers love hearing updates from their students. Share your happy news in person, and write another thank you note to let them know how much their time and effort made a difference.