Letters of recommendation will never be the most important component of a student’s college application folder, but they can be a tipping factor.

Think about it. If two students have similar stats, i.e., they have taken the same kinds of courses and their standardized test scores are in the same range, and the college feels forced to choose between them, then recommendations, as well as the essays play a role.

Imagine reading an impressive recommendation that goes something like this:

“Robert is curious. He is one of my strongest students who consistently questions what we’re reading and discussing. Additionally, he is also one of the most easily recognizable leaders on our campus. Robert is modest and seeks to make a difference in the lives of the people around him and he does so without requiring the spotlight.”

Now imagine reading a lackluster letter like this. “Daria is hard-working and seems to get along well with her peers. She hasn’t missed a class or failed to turn in an assignment. She is very reliable.”

Which student would you choose? It’s an easy hands-down for Robert. The teacher added context and took the time to make the reference personal and not generic. The reference for Daria is lackluster at best.

So how does a student get started on this process?

• Be prepared. Put together a brag sheet that details what you’ve been doing outside the classroom. Focus on extracurricular activities, community service, employment, summer activities, internships/job-shadowing experiences and any honors, scholarships or awards received. Edit it down to one page if possible, but two pages maximum. Have someone else review it and proof it carefully.

• Get organized. Talk with your guidance counselor so you understand how your high school handles teacher and counselor recommendations. Many high schools have software programs such as Naviance that send the recommendations electronically to colleges. But you need to know your school’s policy and timing.

Next week: Choosing whom to ask.

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