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College Admissions: How to Request and Get Fabulous Recommendation Letters

Wednesday, September 10, 2014


Photo Credit: Hometown Beauty via Compfight cc

Yikes! Colleges will see a letter about you that you didn’t get to see. You won’t know what it says and you have to trust the writer to help you put your best self forward. How can you increase the odds that your recommender will write a detail-rich letter that reinforces the characteristics you want colleges to know about you

Follow this step-by-step process

Many colleges and scholarships require or allow letters of recommendation. They help the application reader paint a mental picture of you beyond your grades and test scores. Since they are an important component of the college application process, help your recommenders write the best possible letter by making it easy for them.

You may request up to five letters. One will definitely be from your high school counselor. Two will be from academic subject teachers. Ideally one academic letter will come from a humanities teacher (English or social studies) and one from a math or science teacher.

These need to be teachers from high school, and preferably they will have had you in multiple classes. You may additionally request letters from two outside recommenders such as your art, drama, or Spanish teacher, a sports coach, your boss at work, a mentor under whom you did research, your Scoutmaster, your church/synagogue youth group leader or a college professor from whom you took a class.

Each person should know you well and have specific examples/stories they can tell about you.

Only school counselors are required as part of their job description to write you a letter. Everyone else is doing you a favor.

Step 1:

Decide whom to ask. A class in which you got an A but did not have much teacher interaction might not be as strong a choice as a class in which you struggled, went for before or after-school tutoring, and really got to know the teacher.

Remember, you are looking for someone who can tell detailed stories about you. Verbally ask the person if he/she feels comfortable writing a letter for you. If the answer is no, do not press. This is an indication that the person doesn't feel they have enough to say and you will be better off with an alternate choice. If the person does say yes, you will give him/her your prepared letter.

Step 2:

Compose a letter to each teacher and outside recommender that contains the following components:

  • A request for a college admission letter of recommendation
  • Three extremely specific examples that you remember from your time in that teacher's classes, or your time with that adult. For example, you might describe the carton you built for your physics egg drop, the Lincoln/Douglas debate in which you came in costume and argued against slavery, or the class talk you gave explaining that some infinities were larger than others. If you are sports team captain you could remind the coach about the creative team warm-ups you led or the time you had a heart-to-heart with a team member who was rude to a competitor in the locker room.
  • Tell the recommender what characteristics you are hoping to highlight in your essays. These are the three words or phrases you landed on such as "creative problem-solver, analytical and reliable."
  • Find out if your recommendations are sent electronically by your school counselor or if they have to be snail-mailed. If they are going via the US Postal Service provide a list of schools, due dates, address labels and stamps.
  • Ask the person to save the completed letter electronically in case you have additional places (such as scholarship opportunities) that come up later.
  • Thank the person for his/her time and effort.


Step 3:

Without being obnoxious or pushy, check in with your recommenders at least two weeks before the earliest due date to be sure your letters will be sent on time.


Jodi Walder is the founder of Portland, Ore.-based College Admission Coach LLC www.collegeadmissioncoach.com which helps students identify and gain admission to right-fit schools where they will thrive academically and personally. Contact her at: [email protected].


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