There’s a common misconception that you have no control over college recommendation letters. You ask people to write them for you, and then you tiptoe away and hope for the best, right? No, wrong! You have more control over the process than you think.The first step is to understand that there are three different kinds of recommendation letters, and that they should each accomplish something different for you. Let’s take a closer look.
Photo by Pink Sherbet
Reference Letter #1: A letter from someone outside your school
This letter could be from a job supervisor, a scout troop leader, your minister or rabbi or imam – someone who knows you outside the context of school.This letter should be all about your personal qualities. It should describe specific things you have done, not general character traits. (Saying you are “A fine young man” isn’t going to cut it in an admissions office, unless it is followed with specifics.) If you ask your priest for a recommendation, for example, ask if he will write about the extra effort you made to tutor an under-performing kid in your congregation, or about the dinners you cooked for a family in need.
Reference Letter #2: A letter from your guidance counselor
This letter should deliver a picture of where you fit within the broader context of life at your school. Are you respected for being an athlete, a good student and the class’s best pianist – in other words, a well-rounded standout in your class? If your school only offers a few advanced placement classes but you took them all, that would be something to mention. This letter should also explain any periods of poor performance. If your father was ill during your junior year and your grades fell that year, this letter should fill in that information.
Note: Chances are that your guidance counselor is going to write a letter for you, even if you don’t know about it. Be sure to exercise some control over what that letter will say.
Reference Letter #3: A letter from a teacher
The teacher recommendation gives a snapshot of how you performed in a specific situation or context. Are you someone who always raises the level of class discussions? Did you boost another student’s abilities when you completed a shared assignment together? Did you come in for extra help weekly until you finally earned a B+ in Algebra II? Resist the temptation to ask a teacher to write a rec simply because you got an A in his or her class. Instead, ask a teacher who has a specific story to tell on your behalf – even if it’s about how you overcame a problem.
Those are the three letters you will be expected to provide. Now, how do you make sure to get the best possible letters in all three categories? It’s simpler than you might think. Since the letter-writers will be wondering what to write about you, you can make life easier by spelling it out for them. Don’t leave it to chance. When you ask your rabbi or priest for a letter, for example, talk about the cooking classes that you taught for senior citizens. When you visit your guidance counselor, talk about the fact that you exhausted all the French classes at your school, then went to take extra classes outside of school. When you visit the teacher who will write your recommendation, chat about the time you bombed one test, but asked to take it again, then got an A. Simply talk to your letter-writers about the stories that you want them to tell, and chances are very good that they will do it. But now it’s time to ask another question – perhaps the biggest one of all . . .
What is the purpose of recommendation letters?
It is really to give college admissions officers a unique, viral story to tell about you when they go into meetings of the admissions committee. You want one of them to be able to say, “Oh yes, this is the young woman who pumped gas after school when her mom lost her job”, “This kid plays second-chair oboe in the Des Moines Symphony”, or “This is the young man who sent a container of computers to a school in Kenya.” When you project a story that will be repeated, you’ve gone a long way toward standing out from other applicants. Your application essay is one place to make that happen, but recommendation letters should be working hard for you too. They play a critical role in telling your story.