As you begin the process of planning and saving for college, you will find that most colleges and many scholarship providers require letters of recommendation. This important element is like a ‘mini-commercial,’ giving you the opportunity to demonstrate what specific abilities or traits set you apart from other applicants. The quality and accuracy of this commercial depends on choosing the appropriate author for your letters. You should seek the assistance of someone who has first-hand knowledge of your academic abilities and has had ample time to get to know you as a person. It is best to avoid using close friends and relatives, as they may not be able to provide an unbiased opinion of your abilities or personal growth. To ensure you present the best possible snapshot of yourself in your letters of recommendation, consider the following.
1. Select the Appropriate Person
College admission letters differ from scholarship recommendation letters, so you’ll need to select the right person for the job. For college admission recommendation letters, it is a good idea to recruit teachers from your core subject areas (math, English, science, language and social studies) or those associated with your intended college major; these educators will be able to speak to your ability to grasp concepts and handle college-level work, as well as address any lapses in your grades. Your guidance counselor is another good resource, provided you have visited with him/her throughout your time in school. When recruiting someone to write your scholarship recommendation letters, first determine the type of recommendation needed. If it is for a merit-based award, you will want to stick with the same sources used for your college applications. For athletic or service-based awards, you should look to those who know you on a more personal level, like your coach or a volunteer coordinator, as they may have better insights to your moral character or willingness to work with others.
2. Provide Sufficient Information
The person recommending you may know you fairly well, but he/she still will need to know some basic information in order to provide a worthy letter of recommendation. Be sure to give him/her a copy of your résumé, including your academic record, extracurricular activities, volunteer work and any awards/honors you may have received while in high school. It’s also a good idea to provide an outline of what the letter should include, such as information about your work in a specific subject area or examples of your ability to overcome obstacles. Many applications also include a section about your aspirations and future goals, so including a brief ‘mission statement’ can help the person recommending you tailor his/her letter, as well. You should also provide your contact information, just in case he/she has any questions about the letter.
3. Be Considerate
When approaching someone to write a letter of recommendation, keep in mind that you may not be the only one who is requesting help. It is suggested that you give the person recommending you at least four to six weeks of advanced notice and provide him/her with a deadline (typically a week before it actually needs to be mailed), just in case there are any setbacks. Don’t badger him/her about the letter; instead, pop in about a week before the deadline and ask how it is coming along, reminding him/her that the deadline is drawing near. Also, do not request to see the letter, as most colleges and scholarship providers require the letter to remain confidential. If you will need multiple letters from someone, ask him/her upfront if he/she can provide more than one letter. It’s a good idea to ask several different people to write recommendations for you, so you do not overburden anyone. Asking someone to write up to three letters may be fine, but more than that may be asking too much. For each letter you require, be sure to include a stamped, pre-addressed envelope for use, as it is not the responsibility of the person recommending you to pay for supplies or postage fees.
4. Show Your Appreciation
It’s always a good idea to show your gratitude to those who have helped you. Take the time to give a hand-written note or card to each person who wrote a recommendation for you, as well as expressing your gratitude personally. If appropriate, consider giving a small gift, such as a plate of cookies or a gift card, too. You may need their help in the future, so be sure to express your appreciation for their time and assistance soon after they have completed your letter(s).
The majority of colleges consider letters of recommendation when making their admissions decisions, so it’s best to recruit those who can provide well-written, detailed accounts of your academic and personal attributes. It may be tempting to recruit a well-known business leader or other public figure to draft a letter of recommendation for you, but this could backfire on you. Unless the person has known you for some time and can attest to your abilities from personal experience, refrain from name-dropping. When it comes to college admissions and scholarship competitions, your high school educators and mentors will usually be your biggest champions and provide the best recommendations.