In an earlier post, I mentioned the ‘ins and outs’ of preparing a solid college essay and getting through the interview process. I also called your attention to deadlines at different colleges and universities. Today, I thought I would address questions surrounding the letter(s) of recommendation.
Once again, different schools ask students to meet different criteria. Typically, most institutions are looking for one or two letters of recommendation in support of an applicant—but some may ask for additional letters. Look at the guidelines in terms of who should write the recommendation on your behalf. Be sure to fulfill the exact requirement.
Here are a few general ideas to remember when asking for a letter of recommendation:
1. Identify recommenders who can speak on your behalf. Perhaps the biggest mistake you can make with recommendations is to ask someone who doesn’t know you and can’t attest to your interests and abilities. I recall receiving a letter from a U.S. Senator on behalf of an applicant. Sounds great right? Unfortunately, the letter consisted of one statement where the Senator stated he knew this student was an upcoming graduate of a particular high school but he couldn’t share anything additional as he had never met the student and had no information.
This is a missed opportunity. Your list of recommenders should consist of your guidance or college counselor (required by many colleges and universities), at least 2-3 teachers (one should include a teacher from a core academic class) and ideally someone who can attest to your interests/leadership outside the classroom. Choose wisely. Can this person attest to your aptitude, interest in a particular school, leadership qualities, maturity, character, and drive? Can this person embellish on a grade trend or discuss how your SATs are stellar but your performance in class had a dip? Pick those who can attest to your academic abilities in the area(s) you are thinking of studying. Think about the possibility of asking a teacher from a subject area that is not your strength, but who can perhaps shed light on your efforts and success stories.
2. Ask in advance. If the deadline for your application materials is November 1, ask now. Give your recommender(s) plenty of time to write on your behalf. Two to three weeks is very helpful. If you request a letter at the last minute, you can imagine it won’t have the same robust support you may have acquired by simply asking early. Respect the fact that your teachers and counselors have a lot on their plates too.
3. Provide a resume and some background. When you approach your recommender(s), ask for a few minutes of their time. Schedule 15-20 minutes on their calendars. Show up on time. Take a minute and share highlights on your resume as well as your interest in the school(s) you are applying to along with the appropriate deadlines. Let them know if they should submit the letter online or via hard copy directly to the university. Also, let them know when you might check back with them just to see if they have any questions. Give them a contact phone number or e-mail address just in case.
As for content, most recommenders have done this before. Yet it doesn’t hurt to let them know about some specific things that you think they might want to call attention to on your behalf. For instance, if you founded “Meals on Wheels” in your town but it is only one small line on your resume, you might want to mention that this effort is important to you and how much time you dedicate to the organization. You may want to call their attention to your desired major and offer support of academic achievement and challenges you have met that prepared you for the next step and in particular, that specific school’s program.
Chances are, you are applying to more than one school and the recommender may write a letter to be used for multiple applications. So remember—it is important that if they use the name of a particular school in the letter, ask them to make sure it is changed for the appropriate university throughout the letter.
4. Check back with your references. As the deadline approaches, there is nothing wrong with checking back in with your teachers or counselor to make sure everything is set.
5. Check with the college or university. Many schools invite students to check their application status online to see if something is in or still missing. If that option isn’t available, be sure to call the office and make sure all your credentials have been received.
6. Send a thank you note. Saying “Thank you” is always appreciated. A handwritten note is even better. Take the time to let your recommender know you appreciate their time in writing on your behalf and update them when you have your final decision made.
In the end, keep in mind that the letter of recommendation is one more way to share with an admission committee who you are and what unique traits you will bring to the university community.