Five Tips to Get the Best Letter of Recommendation Possible

Five Tips to Get the Best Letter of Recommendation Possible

The right letter of recommendation can make you stand out from the other college applicants. Let's face it: many students have great grades, so you need a genuine letter that speaks to what makes you unique to win over admission counselors. Here are five tips to get the best letter of recommendation possible.

1. Know the Rules of Recommendation Letters

Each high school and college handles recommendation letters differently. Talk with your school's college guidance counselor to learn the requirements. Some colleges require electronic submissions either through a college application portal, such as Common App, or through direct e-mail to the college's admission board. Other colleges require filling out a specific form, which must be sent in addition to the recommendation letter.

If you know which colleges you want to apply to, find out the correct policies. Some schools do not want to receive your letters until after you submit the application, and other schools have guidelines for who can write a letter. For example, Stanford recommends letters from 11th- and 12th-grade teachers and will accept letters through e-mail, fax or mail without the need of a special form.

2. Know Who to Ask

When it comes to college recommendation letters, you are looking for quality, not quantity. Think about the teachers that know you the best and can speak to your admirable personal and academic qualities.

"It's important to ask anyone writing a letter of recommendation to focus on things about you that aren't already evidenced in your application materials or transcripts," said Kristina L. Dooley, a certified educational planner in Northeast Ohio who aids families in the college admission and funding process. "The admission officers can already see what your grades were in your classes so it's better for teachers to share information on your character, attitude and their overall impressions of how they predict you will be as a college student and beyond."

Teachers don't have to be your only source of recommendation letters either. You can also ask coaches, supervisors, pastors and other individuals who have an established role in the community and who can attest to your character.

3. Be Respectful

It is important to remember that teachers are busy, and their schedules fill up quickly as the end of the year approaches. Ask as early as possible and ask respectfully. Remember that your recommenders are doing you a favor; this is not an obligation.

With that in mind, make it personal when you ask. For example, say, "Mrs. Jones, I have really enjoyed your teaching and feel that I have learned and grown the most in your class this year. I was wondering if you would be willing to write me a letter of recommendation for college?"

If the answer is no, express your gratitude and ask a different teacher instead.

4. Make It Easy for the Recommender

While your teacher might be able to praise your work ethic in class, giving them a little more information about yourself and your college and career goals can help them write a truly authentic letter.

"Prepare an accomplishments resume, where you list all of your activities, honors and awards," said Mark Kantrowitz, publisher and vice president of strategy for Cappex.com, an online college and scholarship search portal headquartered in Chicago. "The teacher can use this material in the letter to reinforce his or her points."

Along with your accomplishments resume, include the recipient's name and address, as well as any other necessary instructions, deadlines and forms. If they are required to mail the letter, be sure to include a stamped and addressed envelope. You want your teacher to write and send the letter quickly without anything to delay the process.

5. Follow Up and Say Thanks

It's important to give your recommenders enough time to write your letter, so don't pressure them one week after asking. A better bet is to send a handwritten thank you note two or three weeks later, letting them know it's an honor to have them write the letter and that you appreciate them finding the time to do so. Such a gesture not only expresses gratitude, but it will also gently remind any teacher who has not written your letter yet.

Don't underestimate the power of a good recommendation letter. If possible, start asking for these at the start of your senior year to ensure your recommenders have plenty of time to finish your letters and do you justice in the process.