Jun 8, 2011

The Best College Recommendations

A colleague in a Midwestern high school recently posted phrases collected from honest-to-goodness recommendations sent on behalf of students applying to college.

“I look forward to John’s final term at the school,” earnestly stated one recommender begging an obvious question. And, “This young lady has no problems to speak of,” vaguely suggested there might be something more to know.

One teacher claimed, “I promised Jimmy I would write him the best recommendation I could,” but ruined the effect by adding, “Unfortunately this is it.”

In addition to “damning with faint praise,” recommendations are becoming increasingly generic. One assistant admissions dean recently commented, “Recommendations just aren’t as useful as they once were. They don’t tell us much.”

It doesn’t have to be this way. Guidance counselors and teachers support the mission and want to do the best possible job. But they may need a little help.

Here’s how you can go the extra distance to ensure your recommendations are the best:

  1. Work on relationships.
    Keep in mind that you may not always have a choice of recommenders as colleges generally specify who they want, with your guidance counselor almost always at the head of the list. And since colleges usually prefer recommendations from teachers you had junior year, you pretty much know the universe of possibilities.

    So it makes basic sense to cultivate these relationships by being a good student and an engaged member of the school community. Talk to teachers after class and take the initiative to meet periodically with your guidance counselor. Relationships matter, and you don’t want your request for a recommendation to be your first one-on-one conversation with that person.

  2. Choose the best.
    You definitely want people who can attest to your strengths and who are both credible and reliable—literate sometimes helps too. Review your list and choose those you can trust to do the best possible job on your behalf.

    And remember that the most obvious choice isn’t always the best. A teacher who can speak to your character and perseverance in a class that wasn’t necessarily your strongest, might provide more compelling comments than one in which you aced every test and paper with ease.

  3. Ask early.
    By the end of junior year, you should be able to approach a couple of teachers to request college recommendations. By asking before school lets out, you’re giving teachers the opportunity to begin drafting over the summer, which helps if you’re planning to apply early. And since more and more teachers are limiting the number of recommendations they are willing to write, it can’t hurt to get your request in early. Besides it shows organization and commitment.

    But regardless of whether you feel confident enough to ask before the beginning of senior year, don’t delay too long into the fall. No one likes short notice to write a recommendation. It shows lack of consideration and courtesy. Look carefully at due dates and plan to give at least a month’s notice to each of your recommenders.

  4. Ask in person.
    Don’t send an email or leave a voicemail. Asking in person conveys how important the recommendation is to you and allows you a face-to-face opportunity to “sell” your candidacy. These conversations can also give you a small indication of how strong the recommendation is likely to be. If the response is tepid or indifferent, you might consider alternatives.

  5. Provide information.
    Once you have secured a commitment from recommenders, find out what information they need and when they want it. If they don’t want to hear from you again before the start of senior year, fine, but if they want the material before summer break, get it to them.

    At a minimum, put together a package with a cover letter listing the colleges to which you will be applying and the relevant due dates. Include a brief statement suggesting why you thought they might be able to provide a good recommendation and why you would be an outstanding candidate at any of the colleges listed. If you have a particular connection to or qualification for a specific program, feel free to provide that information as well.

    In the package, you should also include a resume and any relevant forms clipped together with stamped addressed envelopes if your school does not submit electronically. By the way, if recommendations are going to be sent electronically, be sure to follow application directions and provide all relevant names and email addresses.

  6. Sign the waiver.
    Yes, you need to waive your right to read your recommendations—now and in the future. Federal law grants you rights to review recommendations, but applications almost always include forms asking you to waive them. For many different reasons, these waivers provide application readers with a sense that the information provided is candid and accurately reflects what the writer truly believes. Recommendations without signed waivers are likely to be given less weight in the application process.

  7. Follow-up.
    It’s your responsibility to make sure that your recommenders are aware of deadlines and complete everything on time. Without being a total pest, politely follow-up on the status of your recommendation after a reasonable period of time. Often colleges will let you know when the recommendation has been received, so avoid being annoying by using those tools to do the tracking whenever possible.

    If you have no confirmation that the recommendation has been received within 3 days of deadline, gently remind the recommender that the material is due soon. Sometimes a nice thank-you note will jolt a quick response.

  8. Express appreciation.
    Teachers are under no particular obligation to write recommendation letters. Although most are happy to help, teachers really are doing you a huge favor. So don’t neglect to tell them how much you value their personal support and follow-up with a handwritten thank-you note. Also, once you’ve received admissions decisions, take the time to bring your recommenders up-to-date and thank them again. It’s the nice thing to do.

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