Is he the right person to write your letter? Look to those teachers with whom you’ve formed relationships in 11th and 12th grade.
Recommendation letters are an important component of many college applications, but sometimes students focus on the wrong things when choosing their writers.
As a former admissions officer at the University of Pennsylvania, I read thousands of recommendation letters and witnessed the bad choices many applicants made when it came time to select the authors of these all-important missives. Read on for my advice about avoiding these pitfalls.
• DO choose the right teacher to write your letter.
Think the teacher giving you an easy A is the best one to write on your behalf? Think again. If you’re doing little more than sitting in the back of the room each day doodling in your notebook while acing every quiz and exam, this is probably not the ideal person to write a recommendation letter. This teacher knows you can do the work but has no insight into how your mind functions or what you might add to the classroom experience.
Is there another course in which you are participating in classroom discussions, waiting around afterward to ask for clarification on a tricky concept and organizing study groups with your peers, all while earning a slightly lower grade? This teacher, who can easily draft a page about your engagement in the work and the class, is your writer.
The best recommendation writers know you well and can attest to your ability to handle and connect with the material while adding to the learning environment through class participation. Look to those teachers with whom you’ve formed relationships, but keep your focus on 11th and 12th grades. Colleges want to know who they’re getting now, not who you were two or three years ago, and many will specify that they want to hear from a teacher you’ve had in your junior or senior year.
• DON’T send unnecessary extra letters of recommendation.
Colleges are inundated with application materials every year, some of which they requested, but piles of which they did not. It may be tempting to ask everyone you’ve ever known to write a letter on your behalf, but resist! I frequently read letters from neighbors, government figures, parent co-workers who were alumni — even siblings and grandparents. These letters added nothing but bulk to an already-full file of material. Per my earlier point about the best writers, if this person doesn’t actually know you or interact with you outside of your personal relationship, just say no.
A strong extra letter of recommendation might be written by your job supervisor, a coach or an extracurricular activity mentor — anyone who can offer a different perspective from your teachers. Even here, I would keep any extra letters to one, so think carefully about the best option.
• DO more than just give your recommendation-letter writers a list of your colleges.
How you approach the request for your recommendations is almost as important as who you approach. Take a few minutes to draft a short letter explaining your reasons for asking them to write on your behalf. Outline one or two specific projects or lessons that you particularly enjoyed and describe why. Give a few examples of your best or most challenging moments in class, and provide some detail about both the experience and the end result. Offer some insight into your academic plans in college. Putting the time and effort into this exercise will make it easier for your recommender to organize and craft the letter on your behalf.
• DON’T forget to thank your recommendation writers!
One final thought: When the dust has settled and your applications are out the door, don’t forget to thank the people who wrote them!
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