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How to get the best letters of recommendation

By Kate Forman, Rugger’s Edge Advisor

Photo Credit: Study.Com

Photo Credit: Study.Com

With the application season quickly approaching (faster than you think!), it is both helpful and advantageous to get your proverbial ducks in a row. You are probably still considering all your options and trying to nail down which colleges and programs to apply to, so now is the time to get your letters of recommendation in line. Bear this in mind, your teachers are crazy busy at all times of the year (we literally have no downtime), and thus you need to get a head start on the process. If you want to get the best letter then you need to be proactive.

Here’s something you should understand (and don’t be offended)…your teachers don’t remember everything about you. This may surprise you, but keep in mind I have over 260 students per year. It’s hard to remember all those names, much less something significant and unique that will help me write a letter on their behalf. If you want to get the best letter, you have to have the best approach. First things first, the ask. You need to ask in person. Remember, you may have been their student previously, but they might not know you via email, so go talk to them directly. Once you have verbally secured that your teacher or mentor will write a letter on your behalf, let them know you will be sending them a detailed email.

When students ask for letters of recommendation, I tell them to get me a list of accomplishments, something unique about them, and what they would like me to focus on. Here is what I have received:

Photo Credit:

GPA is over 3.8 Wrestling, captain Football Good at science Worked at church camp AP language class And say something good about me

What am I supposed to do with this??? I have no idea how to make you sound amazing when you send a list like this. I would love to say that I remember everything about all my students, but I don’t. So if you want me to get you the best letter, if you want me to make you sound like someone colleges can’t pass up, give me something. Here’s what you should do:

In a Word or Google Document, draft the following:

Today’s Date

Dear Mr./Ms/Mrs. ________________:

I am writing to follow up on my request for a letter of recommendation; first of all, thank you for agreeing to write one on my behalf. Below I have listed all pertinent information regarding the purpose, recipient, all relevant personal information, and deadlines.

  1. Full name (this is helpful in order to spell your name correctly)

  2. Current and specific GPA

  3. List of upper-level classes with the grade you earned in the class

  4. If your grades do not reflect your potential or if you have special circumstances which have impacted your grades you need to offer an explanation

  5. Work experience (if applicable)

  6. Community service: location, number of hours volunteered, what you did, and what you learned

  7. Athletics: sports, years played, leadership status (if applicable)

  8. Clubs: name of the club, years participated, what the club did, and your leadership role (if applicable)

  9. Musical instruments and/or band experience: specific instrument(s), number of years played, and leadership position (if applicable)

  10. Extracurriculars: club sports, involvement at your local church or organization

  11. Special circumstances: list anything unique to your life experiences or upbringing that could be relevant to your acceptance

  12. Five adjectives that clearly describe you

  13. Additions: anything that does not fit into the above categories or something unique about yourself that you would like to share

  14. Recipient and purpose: who the letter is for and why they are writing it

  15. The date you need the letter (this should be a week before it is due to give yourself time to put all your resources together and submit it)

I appreciate your help in this matter, sincerely,

Full Name

If you provide your teacher or mentor with this, they will be able to turn around and offer you the best letter, which in turn can get you in the door. I know from experience; years after being hired at my first teaching position, the hiring teacher confessed to me that he didn’t like me at my interview. He was ready to hire someone else, but then he read my letters of recommendation. Both of my master teachers wrote stunning letters for me, which is what got me the job, and I still work there to this day. Don’t underestimate the value of a solid letter of recommendation; it could be the difference between acceptance and rejection. NOTE: Make sure to check with your counselor & teachers about the process your school uses to request letters of recommendation. Usually, it is through your high school's college portal (e.g. MaiaLearning or Naviance), but this can vary from school to school. Best to find out in the Spring of your Junior Year.


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