How to Get Good Letters of Recommendation

One of the most important elements of a college application is a letter of recommendation from an educator. Because college admissions offices take this part of the application seriously, it's important that you give it the attention it deserves.

Keep in mind that a letter of recommendation tells a story about who you are. It offers more details about you than your grades or standardized test scores. It provides information about your strengths as well as observations about your personal character.

Steps in the Process

Long before asking for a letter of reference, you need to find ways for your teachers to get to know you. Participate in class by asking questions. Work hard on your homework. Demonstrate that you're interested in the subject they're teaching. Show them that you understand the material.

Once you've established some quality relationships, it's time to carefully read each college's letter of recommendation requirements to determine the specifics of what's needed. Make a list of these details to share with your references.

Next, consider whom you should ask for a reference and the timing of your request.

Admissions counselors want to know about your performance and contributions in the classroom, so plan to select at least one academic reference. This may include someone who teaches English, a foreign language, science, or math. You may also want to choose other adults who know your strengths, such as a music teacher, youth group leader, or coach. These types of letters can help admissions counselors get an overall picture of who you are. Most importantly, choose references who will be enthusiastic about writing a letter for you and can tell a good story about your personal qualities.

As far as timing is concerned, you should give references at least one month to consider your qualities and prepare your letter of recommendation. Keep in mind that it's always best to ask for a reference in person. Plan to talk with them about the details when they have a free period during the day or ask them after school, when they have fewer distractions. During the conversation, let them know what you've appreciated about their class(es) and convey what you feel you've accomplished. Remind them of special projects, class participation, or how you did overall in the class. Also, talk about your plans for the future and how the recommendation will fit with those goals.

What to Provide

When you have your list of references, provide each with a self-addressed stamped envelope for each college on your list or include the correct email address and related link. Make sure to include details about the deadline and other relevant information. A week before a reference is due, check in with your contact to see if everything is on schedule.

Once you've selected a college, write thank you notes to your references and let them know how much you've appreciated their help and support.