Getting Into College Made Easy: How to Get the Best Letters of Recommendation
Getting into college isn’t as difficult as it seems. Today we are kicking off a series of common-sense posts that prove that point. Let’s start by attacking this question . . .
How can you get the best letters of recommendation?
You have to understand that there are three different kinds of letters of recommendation, and you have to handle them in different ways. Let’s take a look at how you can get the most benefit from each of them.
Type One: A recommendation letter from your high school guidance counselor. Colleges want these letters for a very simple reason: they want a letter that places you within the context of your high school by offering information like this:
- You were the best actor or musician who has come through your high school in the last five years.
- People in your high school admire your leadership and really count on you.
- Your grades slipped a bit when you were in 10th grade because your father was undergoing treatment for a serious medical condition.
- You didn’t take any AP French classes because your school doesn’t offer them. However, you did take every French class that the school offers and got A’s in all of them.
To make sure you get the most from this letter, tell your guidance counselor about the achievements or explanations that you would like the letter to explain. That’s right, simply tell your guidance counselor. After all, most high school guidance counselors today are handling a load of hundreds of students and if you don’t explain who you are and what you have done, your counselor might not even know. Plus, your guidance counselor will probably be thankful when you explain what should appear in the letter, because you are saving him or her the work of doing research about you.
Type Two: A recommendation letter – or more than one - from your teachers. These letters are different from Type One (described just above) because they tell colleges how well you did in a specific situation, or a series of them. In other words, they bring you into focus by revealing information like this:
- When you fell behind in Algebra, you came in for extra help every day and earned a much-deserved B+.
- When another classmate fell behind in Spanish, you helped her get up to speed.
- You consistently asked great questions that elevated the level of class discussions.
- You demonstrated a level of maturity that is greater than that of most of your peers.
- When you got a so-so grade on an important paper, you turned in a rewrite, even though it was not required.
To make sure you get the most from this letter, be sure to ask the right teachers to write them. And remember that the best recommendations do not necessarily come from the teachers who gave you the highest grades. You will often get better recommendations from teachers who taught classes where you struggled a bit and overcame difficulties. And again, don’t be afraid to explain what you would like the letter to say – at least in general terms. You could say, for example, “Mr. Jones, I remember how much you helped me in catch up with the rest of the class last year, and I would like to ask you to write a college recommendation letter for me.”
Type Three: Recommendation letters from clergy, community leaders, coaches, or other “peripheral” individuals. These letters should explain the same things outlined above for Type One and Type Two, but stress your character. A letter from your soccer coach, for example, could explain both context (you played on a team that was not destined to win a state championship) and specifics (on that team your leadership was a great motivator to all your teammates). However, this kind of letter adds something extra: an opinion about your character, which could be revealed in information like this:
- You are the head of your church’s food pantry or afterschool tutoring program for disadvantaged children.
- During a time when both your parents were unemployed, you quit the football team and pumped gas to help put food on the dinner table.
- You spearheaded a community-wide program to clean up town parks, visit patients in nursing homes, or perform some other beneficial service.
To make sure you get the most from this letter, make sure that your referral-giver is someone who has genuine first-hand knowledge of something good that you have done. Resist the temptation to ask powerful people who do not know you well to write letters for you. Sure your father could ask the president of his company to write a recommendation for you. Or maybe your minister could get you a recommendation from a bishop or other highly placed church official. Yet a letter written by someone who genuinely knows you will go a lot further toward opening those college doors.
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