6 Laws your Letters of Recommendation must follow

quill penAlmost all colleges require one or more letters of recommendation in your application packet. These can be the scariest aspect of your application because you have little control over what your recommenders are going to say. Further, narrowing down the entirety of your personal interactions to two or three individuals who could recommend you to college seems a daunting process. Fortunately, there are six simple rules you should follow in order to maximize the positive impact of your letters.

Intelligently selecting a person who will recommend you is the first step in receiving a quality letter of recommendation. Those who are aware of recent work or accomplishments in and out of the classroom tend to be the best letter writers. While it may be tempting to ask a high-ranking or well-respected community member -- such as a councilperson, judge, or other political figure -- to write a letter, resist this temptation unless the person you are asking knows you personally very, very well. A letter from a coach who has worked with you individually for three years is much more valuable than a letter from a mayor who barely knows you and resorts to generic compliments. Consider the following in selecting your recommender:

1. Find a leader who knows you and who has worked with you
A teacher, coach, counselor, advisor, or other school leader who has worked closely with you always makes a good recommender. You want to ask someone with insight into not only your recent accomplishments, but also your future potential. Even though it seems like a recognizable name signed at the bottom of a letter will help your chances, remember that the admissions committee is less interested in who writes your letter than what that person actually has to say. A close relationship with your recommender ensures that your letter will be unique, personalized, and impactful.

2. Ask in advance
You don't have to wait until you start applying for college before requesting a letter of recommendation. If you are still a freshman or sophomore, you can ask a recommender to write you a letter now before he or she begins to forget all of the individual skills and abilities you possess. You can always hang on to a letter for a while before ultimately sending it in. Also remember that if your due date is creeping up and you have yet to ask recommenders for letters, do it immediately. The longer a recommender has to write his or her letter, the higher quality and more polished it will be. Your school work suffers when you try to write an entire essay in one sitting, and the same is true for recommenders. Ask them well in advance so that they have plenty of time to get the work done.

Know, too, that some individuals -- especially those working with juniors in high school -- receive a lot of letter requests. Some use their past experience to know that they only have the time to write a specific amount of quality letters, and when that number of students have requested a letter, begin turning away any later requests. The more time you waste, the more likely you are to be turned away by a quality recommender. Always ask early.

3. Work with your recommenders to tell your story
It is not enough to simply ask your letter-writer to recommend you; you must also give them some direction. Talk with them about your goals, dreams, and plans for college. Remember that your application packet is going to be viewed in its entirety. Letters of recommendation that tell a coherent story along with the rest of your materials are always stronger than those that seem random or disjointed. To enhance this consistency, talk with your recommender about what specifically you would like him or her to write about. A letter from someone who you mentioned in your personal statement and who talks about the same experiences you discussed, for instance, is a great way to tell a unified story.

4. Give your recommenders an outline
Your letter-writer already knows who you are (right? If not, pick a new recommender!), but they may not have the benefit of knowing you all around. You will want some recommenders to write about specific experiences that you have had with them, but you may also want some who comment on your experiences as a whole. For these letter-writers, provide them with an outline of your experiences and accomplishments. The resume you use for your application packet is a great resource for these writers who can focus their topics on your personal achievements. Remember: a letter that comments on you using specifics is always better than a generic one.

5. Come prepared
When you ask your recommender for a letter, always come prepared with the documents he or she needs to fill out (often colleges will have a form meant to accompany the letter). Sometimes colleges will even provide a checklist for the recommender to know what he or she should address. These forms frequently include a box meant for you to indicate if you waive rights to access the contents of the letter. Ensure that you check this box. Your letter writer will be able to write a more honest, informative letter if he or she is not worried that you will be proofreading the comments. Remember that no letter-writer will intentionally write bad things about you, so there is no reason for you to check their letter after they write it.

Make sure to provide the deadline for your letter (though feel free to alter it to be due a little bit earlier than it actually is to compensate for procrastinators). Finally, a pre-addressed, pre-stamped envelope is always a nice touch and ensures that your recommender will not accidentally send the letter to the wrong place. Doing all of this research in advance will allow your recommender to focus on saying good things about you rather than trying to figure out the administrative requirements themselves.

6. Use your letters to show the big picture
Depending on how many letters your college accepts, ensure that you tell your entire story with them. For instance, if your college requests three letters, do not simply ask three teachers. Instead, ask your science teacher with whom you helped to develop a Freshman syllabus, your baseball coach of three years, and your club advisor who has watched you plan many community service activities. A diverse pool of letter writers tells a much broader story. Remember that the point of letters of recommendation are to get a deeper insight into who you are. Make sure you have a good answer to the question, "what can this person say about me that other letter writers and I have not already said?"

Following these six simple techniques will ensure that you get the best letters of recommendation possible. This part of your application is vitally important and is easy to neglect as you work hard on crafting the parts that you are personally responsible for. But never forget the impact that a well-written letter might have in convincing an admissions officer that you are the right student to fill a seat in their school.

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You should select recommenders who know you well and who can write competently. Well-meaning friends may write glowing comments, but poor grammar and unprofessional appearances make negative impressions. Choose recommenders who will write specific statements about you—not remarks that could apply to any student. Generic comments reflect little about you and do not help you stand out among the applicants.

- casas, 12/09/08 at 4:33 am

Good suggestions. From my point of view, first you need find the right person, as suggested in this article. Second and more importantly, you must let him write what you want him to write. That's more challenging since you need excellent communication skills.

- Jack, 03/03/09 at 10:13 am

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