One of the most important parts of your college application isn't written By you -- it's the letter of recommendation. Most colleges request or require one or more letters from teachers, coaches and other people who can provide insights into who you are. These letters of recommendation along with college application essays and extracurricular activities form the subjective criteria that help set students apart from one another. What's the process?

Read the fine print. There is no one-size-fits-all here. Some colleges require one letter from a teacher of a core subject while others will simply suggest sending two letters. Many colleges will provide forms for the recommenders to complete and some can accept recommendations online while others aren't there yet.

Plan ahead. Know your deadlines and make sure to give as much time as possible. Recommended time is two to three weeks before the application deadline. Popular teachers fill their quotas early.

Ask, don't assume. It is important to ask teachers and other recommenders two questions: 1) Are they comfortable that they can write a strong letter on your behalf? A lukewarm letter can do real damage. 2) Can they meet your deadline?

Help them help you. Provide your recommenders with a copy of your transcript and an information sheet, also known as a brag sheet, that details your extracurricular activities, community service involvement, honors, summer experiences, etc.

Simplify the process. Supply teachers and other recommenders with stamped envelopes addressed to the college admissions offices if they are not doing them online.

>Whom to ask

Consider your future major. If you are thinking about majoring in engineering, a math or science teacher makes more sense than English.

Evaluate who can help you most. Receiving an "A" in a class or picking your favorite teacher should not be the determining factors. Very often the class where you may have struggled at first and demonstrated your perseverance is a better choice. Teachers in those classes will probably write stronger letters because they will share their perceptions of your work ethic and your contribution to the class.

>Follow up

Reconnect with your recommenders. Get back in touch with your recommendation writers a week or so before the deadline to ensure that the letters have been mailed.

Confirm receipt. Follow up with colleges to be sure your application folder is complete. Many colleges now offer online application status checks -- be sure to write down your user name and password for each college you are applying to.

Say thank you. Be sure to send a handwritten thank-you note to your recommenders once everything is in and let them know the results of your college applications.


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