Most students pick either their favorite teacher who gave them the “easy A” or their coach to write their letters of recommendation. It’s not necessarily a bad tactic, but being more strategic is likely to have greater dividends.
A strong letter of recommendation states more than the facts. The best letters tell a good story about the applicant; they provide context and detail that an admissions person can’t get from any other part of the application.
Since a letter of recommendation can be a tipping factor for a student, the strongest ones share information about a student’s personal growth and their interests outside the classroom. So, choosing which teacher to ask becomes an important decision.
If the college only requests one letter of recommendation, then it should come from a core subject teacher (English, math, science, social studies or foreign language). Letters of recommendation from elective teachers, coaches, youth group leaders, employers or family friends are supplemental. Remember, you are applying to college, not for a summer job.
Asking for recommendations can be a little nerve-wracking, sort of like asking for a first date, but here are a few tips to make it go a little more smoothly:
• Ask in person. Don’t call and leave a message or send an email or text. You will want to see your teachers’ nonverbal communication. Are they excited to do this for you or do you see a hint of hesitation? If you can tell from their reaction that they are already overwhelmed with other requests, you might consider asking someone else.
Here’s what you might say: “Mrs. Jones, I have really enjoyed your class and learned a lot. I’d like to know if you’d be willing to write a strong letter of recommendation for me for my college applications. Out of all my teachers, I think you know me better than anyone else and I’d be pleased if you would write my recommendation.”
• Provide updated information. Once a teacher has agreed to write your letter, you’ll need to give them your resume. If your school has asked you to have your letters of recommendation sent via mail, then you will need to provide each teacher with a folder that has stamped addressed envelopes for each college admissions office. If the letters are being sent online, recommenders will receive instructions from the college or your guidance office.
• Send the thank-you note. Don’t forget to let your teachers know how much you appreciate what they’re doing. They’re not compensated for doing this and it takes time. Be sure to keep them updated of your acceptances and your final choice.
Lee Bierer is an independent college adviser based in Charlotte, N.C. For more information, visit www.collegeadmissionsstrategies.com