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Getting the Best Letters of Recommendation

Letters of recommendation give colleges a second opinion about your high school achievements and a sense of who you are.

Most colleges expect you to ask for letters of recommendation from your counselor and teachers. You need to choose and prepare your recommenders carefully. What they say about you matters.

First, Find Out What the College Requires

The application should clearly state who should complete the recommendation forms. Typically, it's your high school counselor, a few teachers, and possibly your principal. You have a choice of which teachers to ask. These forms usually ask your recommender to rate your academic performance and personal qualities, and add additional comments. Most of the time, colleges provide recommendation forms with their applications. Application services, like the Common App, provide their own recommendation forms.

Then Zero In On Teachers and Staff Who Know You Well

While this may be obvious, you need to select teachers who like you, have taught you recently, and have shown appreciation for your work. Choosing a teacher simply because he or she is your favorite, however, isn't necessarily a good idea. Consider teachers from different disciplines, such as English and science, who have taught you for at least a semester. Choose those who made thoughtful comments on your work and have noticed how much academic progress you have made.

Give Your Recommenders Info and Materials They Need—and Plenty of Time

Ask your recommenders as early as possible, even during your junior year. Supply them with forms, instructions, and materials at least a month before the submission deadline. If you are using an application service, let them know what it is and that you will be "inviting" them through the service to complete a recommendation.

  • Tell them how to submit their recommendation. The submission method should be spelled out in the application. Most often, your recommenders will complete and submit the forms online. If for some reason your recommender needs to send the recommendation via regular mail, print out the forms and give them to your recommenders along with stamped envelopes addressed to the admission office.
  • Supply them with a copy of your transcript (which you can request from your counselor's office) and a short resume of your academic achievements, interests, and goals. Remind them of your accomplishments and progress in their classrooms.
  • Follow up a week before the letters are due to make sure they were sent. And don't forget to say "Thank you!"

Be Careful About Sending Extra Recommendations

Admission officers have plenty of material about you already, so they usually don't want more letters than required. However, if there is a person who has a unique insight into your abilities, contact the admission office to see if it's okay to send an additional letter. It won't hurt to ask.