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A strong letter of recommendation can bolster a college application. Unfortunately, too few students understand the importance of this pivotal piece of the college admissions puzzle.

The norm seems to be that students wait until the last minute to ask the most popular teacher. What's wrong with that picture? Just about everything.

Teachers, coaches, community leaders and employers know students can offer unique perspectives. While high praise in a letter of recommendation isn't an automatic acceptance, a mediocre letter can signal red flags and spell disaster. Colleges read all of the letters submitted, but they generally come into play when they are trying to distinguish between students with similar grades and test scores.

Road map to recommendations

Start early: Asking early demonstrates a measure of responsibility and thoughtfulness on the part of the student, i.e., that you understand the value of the letter of recommendation, are taking the college admissions process seriously and appreciate the person's time. Most guidance counselors recommend asking teachers just before the end of junior year and then reconnecting with them in the fall of senior year.

Approach recommenders carefully: Ask them whether they feel comfortable writing you a letter of recommendation. If you get a hint of hesitation, say thank you and move along to the next name on your list.

Be strategic about whom you ask: Asking the teacher who gave you the "easy A" may not work in your favor. You need to ask yourself, "Who knows me and my work best?" Figure out which teacher can share the most about your intellectual curiosity, strong work ethic, ability to get along with other students, ability to lead and your potential career success. Students and parents often ask whether it is critical for the student to have received an "A" in a class before her or she can ask for a letter of recommendation. No. Just getting an "A" in a class doesn't mean that a teacher will write a stellar letter. Frequently the most powerful letters of recommendation come when a student has struggled in a class but has shown determination and perseverance.

Prepare your recommender: Help your recommender help you. Prepare a resume or brag sheet that gives the teacher a better understanding of your involvement in community service, extracurricular interests, how you've spent your summers, any honors, scholarships or awards you've received and any employment. The teacher will use this information to provide depth and breadth to your letter of recommendation. In essence, you want to make the recommender's job as easy as possible. If the recommendations are being sent electronically, provide them with stamped, addressed envelopes for each college you're applying to, as well as a list of your college application deadlines.

Waive your rights: Most applications will ask if you're willing to waive your rights to see your letters of recommendation. Check the "yes" box. Otherwise the recommender may be leery about being honest and the college will have doubts about your confidence in your recommenders.

Don't forget your manners: Remember that no one is getting paid to write these letters of recommendation for you. Thank the writers properly with a handwritten -- not e-mail -- thank you note and be sure to keep them updated on whatever you hear from your colleges.

Lee Bierer is an independent college adviser based in Charlotte, N.C. For more information, visit www.collegeadmissionsstrategies.com.