How to get strong letters of recommendation?

Many colleges still require letters of recommendation as part of an application. Getting a strong letter can help round out your application materials. It provides insight into how adults perceive you, your academic performance, your work ethic and your contribution to your community.

Begin by checking what type of recommendation is required. Some colleges will specifically ask for a recommendation from your counselor and provide a form for counselors to complete. These are our least favorite–often large public school counselors don’t know their students well (its no fault of their own, they just have really large student case loads). But these forms will indicate how you compare to the peers in your grade level and how prepared you are for college.

Other schools specifically ask for a teacher recommendation. Teachers are the best recommenders because they know your academic abilities. Look for a teacher you had as sophomore or junior preferably in an academic core class like English, Math, Science or History. If the subject relates to your intended major, even better. Do not use classes where you did not get strong grades, participate or turn in assignments on time–especially if the class was virtual. You want a teacher who will say POSITIVE things about you!

If a school requires multiple letters of recommendation and you don’t have multiple teachers who fit the category above, you can ask an advisor of a club, a coach, or even a manager at a part-time job. But again, you want people who will write a strong letter and say positive things. People who know you in several ways–taught a class and coached you in a sport or is your history teacher and student council advisor–are great choices.

Approach your recommenders early–even towards the end of junior year. They will get asked to write a lot of recommendations. Most are due in November or January. If you ask when they are busy, you may not get their best work. Give them at least a month to complete the letter and provide any necessary forms, links or information they need to ensure it is sent to the right place. Also, give the recommender your updated resume, where you are applying and why, some key bullet points about your interests, activities and awards. For example

Mr. SmithThanks for agreeing to provide my recommendations. Below are the links to the three schools’ recommendation forms. Please submit your letters directly through these links. I’ve also attached my resume. I’m applying all three schools because they have strong international studies and political science programs. I hope to one day work for the state department and feel they will give me the background I need. I have been active in student council throughout high school and have taken several government electives. I’m attending boys state and also an active member of “We the People”. In addition, I have run on the cross country and track teams all four years. Please let me know if I can provide you any additional info. Applications are due November 1st but I would like to have everything submitted mid October to guarantee they are on time. Thanks for your help with this! Its really appreciated.

If you need assistance completing applications, please do not hesitate to contact Coffman Consulting.

Published by Kate Coffman

Kate has worked in admissions, financial aid, college and career readiness for over twenty years. She most recently served as the Vice President and Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid at Franklin College. Kate has also worked in admissions at Butler University and Indiana University. Kate has presented at numerous schools and conferences helping families, educators and those who work with youth understand how to be college and career ready, how to apply to college and how to afford their education.

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