Applying to college can be overwhelming; taking (and retaking) standardized tests, last-ditch efforts to improve grade-point averages, gathering transcripts, crafting a resume, filling out online applications, and writing what feels like an endless barrage of essays can make the strongest student feel weak.
While all of these pieces are integral to creating a strong applicant, one sure way to stand out from the sea of applicants is to secure a solid letter of recommendation. Sounds easy enough, right? Get someone else to write great things about you; no problem!
Well, it’s not as easy as it sounds. I’ve written hundreds of letters of recommendation over the years, and I am always amazed by the myriad of ways I am asked. From resumes that mirror a dissertation to a casual, “Hey, can you write me a letter by the end of the day?” I have learned that many students simply do not know how to ask for this important document.
Now for the good news! The following simple steps will help you improve your soft skills while also ensuring you receive the strongest letters of recommendation possible.
1) Ask EARLY.
I cannot emphasize this enough! If you ask someone for a letter the day it is due, you are going to get a quick draft written by someone disgruntled. As a general rule, I like it when students give me two weeks. I like a deadline. If you say, “Whenever’s convenient,” it is likely your request will get pushed to the bottom of your teacher’s never-ending pile of work. Teachers are very busy and prioritize what needs to get done now over what needs to get done eventually. Instead, politely suggest a date (at least two weeks out) and see if they agree. You may be surprised; if you give them a deadline, you may get it sooner!
Also, if you can, ask in person. Though it’s not always possible, it is very helpful, especially if you’re asking a teacher you haven’t had in a couple of years or a counselor with 500 students. Facial recognition is an amazing memory trigger!
Panicked because you simply don’t have two weeks? Chocolate and gift cards can go a long way in boosting someone’s mood and willingness to help out!
2) Send a FORMAL email.
This isn’t the time to be casual; it’s the time to proofread! Treat this email like the final draft of an essay. It’s just as important, if not more so. After all, it’s your college education on the line! If you’re not sure what a formal email should look like, check out these samples.
Even if you feel really familiar with this person, a formal email shows you’re serious. After asking in-person first (if you were able to), follow up with a detailed email that includes the following information.
Share some background. Briefly explain where you are applying and what your future goals are. You don’t need to have every detail of your life planned out, but knowing that you hope to pursue Astrophysics can be helpful!
State what the letter is needed for. Is it for the Common App? A specific school? A scholarship? A particular program or school within a university? Help your recommender understand who their audience is. Provide materials from the organization requesting the letter, if applicable. For example, if you are applying for a scholarship, knowing who is awarding the scholarship and what the qualities they are looking for in the recipient is incredibly important.
Explain what format you need. Do you need hard copies? Electronic only? Is there a link they should send it through? For example, if you want a letter for the Common Application, you will need to send an email link directly from the Common Application.
Attach a one-page resume. This provides the person you’re asking to get a letter from a more well-rounded picture of you. While your math teacher probably cannot comment on your cheer experience, she can comment on how you were able to juggle competitive cheer while still maintaining a 4.0 in the class!
Be sure to do your homework and have answers to these questions before requesting a letter!
3) Say THANK YOU. There’s nothing more disappointing than writing someone an amazing letter and not receiving any acknowledgment. A simple thank you, either in person or via email will suffice. An actual thank you card with a handwritten note may feel old school, but teachers love it! I have a box of thank you cards I’ve saved over the years to prove it. Saying thanks also ensures you can ask guilt-free for an additional letter later in the year (this happens more often than you think)!
4) Share the RESULTS! So many students forget this step! You may feel like you’re bragging but your recommenders LOVE to hear that their letter helped you land the school of your dreams or earn a scholarship. Even if it’s six months later, take the time to let that person know. After all, they took the time to write that letter!
This might seem like a lot of work for one little piece of paper, but it may just be the piece of paper that convinces the admissions committee to accept you!
Good luck; you’ve got this!
Fifteen-year teacher veteran, professional editor, and published writer
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