How to Get Great Letters of Recommendation for College

Letters of recommendation help admissions officers determine who is likely to succeed on campus.

All of a child’s hard work in high school is reflected in the student’s transcript and test scores, and all of your child’s activities are shown on the extracurricular list. So why do college admissions offices require letters of recommendation?

Recommendation letters provide college admissions officers with something they can’t deduce from transcripts and numbers: a sense of how your child conducts herself/himself in school both as a student and person.

In other words, letters of recommendation reveal character traits and unique aspects of your child’s personality that test scores, GPAs, and extracurricular lists can’t.

Are they an important part of a student’s college application? They sure are. College admissions officers depend on letters of recommendation to help them pick those students who are best suited for the academic challenges and social milieu of the school.

How can you make sure that your letters of recommendation will increase your value? Below we’ve listed seven things you can do to make sure that your letters of recommendation optimize your college admissions chances.


1.  Follow the rules set by each college on your list.

Follow the instructions provided by each college on your list.

In other words, if a college requests two letters from academic teachers and one from a guidance counselor, you should send just that. If a college asks for two academic teachers and allows you to choose who writes the third, you may ask a guidance counselor but you might also consider asking a coach or employer.

2.  Ask someone because she or he knows you, not because that person is famous.

While it may seem like a good idea to ask a teacher who is an alum of your top-choice school, or a teacher who has some celebrity status in your community, you will only benefit from the letter if the recommender can write a substantial, detailed,  and persuasive letter about you.

Remember, the college admissions committee is evaluating the applicant, not the person writing the letter. Your child is more important than the perceived status of the recommender.

Also, keep in mind that the recommender’s job is to elaborate on your child’s unique character but if the recommender doesn’t know your child, that person will not be able to write anything but a generic letter. And a generic letter is not going to help your child

3.  Ask someone who knows your recent work.

Choose recommenders who are familiar with your present work or your work from the year prior. Even if you’ve maintained a great relationship with a teacher from an earlier grade level, your goal is to show admissions officers who you are now. That said, if a teacher from an earlier year has continued to mentor you through to the present moment, do consider asking that person.

If your child is unsure whether or not an adult will write a compelling recommendation, they should ask the recommender if they would feel comfortable providing a “strong letter of recommendation.” If that person hesitates, your child should move on.


4.  When to ask for a letter of recommendation.

You should request recommendation letters at least two months before their application deadlines.

Remember, teachers are often overwhelmed with letter of recommendation requests 2-3 months prior to application deadlines. If you ask in advance, you are more likely to get a substantial letter rather than a quickie special.

5.  Be polite when requesting a letter of recommendation.

Ask in person, whenever possible. An email request may make you look less invested and less mature.

When requesting a letter of recommendation, always tell the person why you value her or his opinion.

Also, you should offer to provide recommenders with a short list of notable accomplishments performed in the classroom or in the environment in which you worked with the recommender. Some recommenders won’t want such a list, but it’s still best to offer as such a list often makes the recommenders job a little easier. Include specific examples and anecdotes as reminders of your performance; if the recommender uses those examples, they show the admissions committee that the writer truly knows and remembers your performance.

6.  Waive the right to view your letters of recommendation.

You should waive the right to see your letters no matter how tempting it is to peek. If you do not waive your right, colleges will not trust the letters, as they assume recommenders are less honest with their commentary when they know the letter will be reviewed by the student.

7.  Follow up.

If you haven’t heard from your recommenders a month after they have agreed to write your letter, reach out to them. How? First thank them again for writing your letter. Then remind them that the deadline for submission is near and remind them of the day by which their letters must be received.

Also, after you’ve been accepted to college, don’t forget to thank your recommenders. Preferably by hand, not email. No kidding. Hand written notes mean a lot these days, and your recommenders are more likely to have your back in future situations if you do. Whatever you do, don’t text a thanks, especially one written in text language.

Want help getting into your dream school? Call me. I’m always ready to help you!

Dr. Osborn works with students from all over the world via Skype, Zoom, FaceTime, phone, and Google docs to help them reach their independent, college, and graduate school goals. Through a personal, one-on-one approach, Dr. Osborn creates an individualized curriculum for each student based on the student’s strengths, passions, and college aspirations. Her holistic approach helps students perform well in school and win admission to the Ivy League and other competitive colleges.  

About The Author
Susan Osborn, Ph.D., has spent 30 years in higher education, in admissions at Vassar College, in the English department and Writing Program at Rutgers University, in the lab at The New Jersey Center for Research on Writing, and as a private tutor. Dr. Osborn is also an award-winning writer and scholar and she brings both her education smarts and her writing smarts to every student relationship.

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