College applicants often consider the teacher recommendation letter to be a bothersome and relatively useless part of the application and thus don't worry about it until the absolute last possible moment. This is a mistake. Recommendations can not only sway college admissions officers in your favor, but also sway them against it. It's important to line these recommendations up early with the teachers who know you best and who will convey your most positive attributes on the college application.
Teacher recommendations come from a outside perspective and speak about you in the third person. Teacher recommendations allow the colleges to corroborate your academic story, be appraised of any personality traits you may not have mentioned throughout the rest of your application, and learn of any other qualifications (positive or negative) that you may bring to the table.
Because these letters are also almost completely out of your control, however, you need to be aware of exactly what you can control, and how you can control it best.
The best recommendations tend to have the following traits:
- They discuss specifics about you. Don't let your letter (or your recommender) wallow in generalizations. The most persuasive recommendations are those that speak with certainty and in detail, and those that show that the recommender has had repeated contact with the applicant.
- They are lengthy. Recommendations that are less than a page are an automatic red flag. Can you really say anything of substance about anyone in 100 words or less?
- They are overwhelmingly positive and do not contain any hidden reservations or concerns. A teacher recommendation is not a forum for the recommender to discuss negative attributes or to explain that “John is an excellent student, but he needs to be prodded at times to apply himself” (yes, this is from an actual recommendation that I've had the displeasure of reading—what school wants to take on a lazy student?). If you're not sure that the recommender can only say positive things about you (or if they themselves express reservations about being able to write you a positive letter) do not have them write the letter. This would seem like an obvious point, but I've seen enough negative letters to know that it is worth pointing out.
- They are error-free. Again, this should be obvious, but I've seen many a letter in dire need of spell-check.
Knowing what makes a great letter is definitely useful, but where most students trip up is in choosing their recommender. After all, everyone knows that the best letters are long letters that say nice things, but how do we choose the people that will write said letters? Here's my six-point plan:
- Choose people who know you well. Do not choose a teacher you don't know so well but who has impressive credentials if all he or she is going to say is that you sat in the front row and seemed to pay attention. Instead, choose people who can make the recommendation credible and powerful by illustrating the points they make with anecdotes that show you at your best.
- Choose people that actually like you. Again, this would seem obvious, but applicants are often in such a rush to get their recommenders lined up that they miss obvious cues that could tell them that the person they're asking doesn't really like them--or doesn't really have anything positive to say. Having your recommender like you--really like you--is crucial: people that like the person they are writing about will actually take the time to write a good recommendation. A recommendation that looks like it took five minutes to write suggests that that is exactly how much time the recommender felt the applicant deserved. In contrast, a recommendation that looks well thought out suggests that the recommender is committed to helping the applicant. In addition, someone who likes you will take the time to write things in a positive light, choosing anecdotes carefully and thoughtfully. Someone who doesn’t like you is likely to pick the first thing that comes to mind.
- Choose people who can write well. Do not assume that all teachers are created equal, particularly when it comes to articulating themselves. This is especially important when it comes to teachers in subjects not usually known for their writing intensity.
- Choose people from a range of fields, backgrounds, and genders. If schools require more than one teacher recommendation (and most do), choose people that can provide different—and complimentary—profiles of your personality and achievements.
- Choose someone timely. Particularly in the realm of the recommendation letter, someone who will take the time to write a letter well and send it off in plenty of time is preferred. If the teacher you're thinking about asking is known for taking two months instead of two weeks to return graded papers, perhaps you would be better off choosing someone else or making very sure that the recommender is on a concrete timeline.
- Choose someone recent. The longer the time span between relationships, the less likely a recommender will remember you with enough detail to be useful.
Who would have thought that a single letter would require so much thought? Just goes to show, no part of your college application should be taken for granted. Take the time to choose your recommenders carefully and help them craft a stellar letter, and you'll reap the rewards in the long run.
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