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Securing a glowing recommendation letter

Posted on: October 6th, 2014 by Lori Greene

Like essays, different schools ask students to meet different criteria, but typically, most institutions are looking for one or two letters of recommendation. Make sure you read the guidelines carefully.

Here are a few other things 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 is to ask someone who doesn’t know you. 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 high school graduate, but he couldn’t share anything additional as he had never met the student.

    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 someone who can attest to your interests and leadership outside the classroom. Choose wisely.

    Can this person attest to your aptitude, interest in a particular school, leadership qualities, maturity, character, and drive? This person should be able to accentuate your strengths and discuss instances where they saw you confront challenges head on.

  2. Ask in advance. If the deadline for your application materials is November 1, ask now. Give your recommender(s) plenty of time. Two to three weeks is very helpful. If you request a letter at the last minute, you can imagine it won’t be as convincing as it could have been. 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. Let them know about deadlines and how they should submit their letter. Also, let them know when you’ll check back with them, and give them your contact information in case they have questions.

    Most recommenders have done this before, but it doesn’t hurt to let them know about specific things you hope they can call attention to. 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 how much time you have spent on it and how important it is to you. You may want to call their attention to your academic achievement that prepared you for a specific school’s program.

    If you are applying to more than one school, 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 of your credentials have been received.
  6. Send a thank you note. Say “Thank you.” A handwritten note is even better. Take the time to let your recommender know you appreciate their time and update them when you have made your final decision.

In the end, keep in mind that the letter of recommendation is one more way to share who you are and what unique traits you will bring to the university community.

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