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Applying to College - How to Get the Best Recommendation Letters

Updated on September 27, 2014

So you've decided which colleges to apply to. You could write a dissertation on the pros and cons of the Common Application, and you're already nervous about what the FAFSA will tell you about financial aid in a few months. But there is still one important aspect of the college application process remaining - recommendations.

Nearly every college and university in the country requires recommendations for applicants to undergraduate or graduate programs. A good recommendation can mean the difference between admission and a spot on the wait list, or between a full scholarship and paying your own way completely. A bad reference can get your file sent straight to the garbage pile. So how exactly do you find that perfect recommendation? You need to select the right people to write your recommendations, and make sure they all the information necessary to write the best recommendation letter possible.

When you applied to college/university, do you think your recommendation letters had an impact?

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Step One: Finding the Right Recommenders

The first step in getting a great recommendation is to ask the right people. If you are applying to college with an intended major declared, make sure at least one of your recommendations comes from a teacher or professor in that area. If you want to enter a program in Creative Writing, a recommendation from your English teacher will be much more valuable than one from your Physics professor!

In addition to trying to match your recommendations with your interests, there are other things to be considered when choosing a recommender. Colleges are primarily looking for information about your academic abilities. Additionally, colleges are going to be interested in learning about your character, values, and personality – this can be especially true at smaller schools or religiously affiliated colleges and universities.

The ideal reference is someone who can talk about all of these qualities, however if this isn’t possible make sure that between the various recommendations you obtain, these qualities will all be discussed. When looking for a recommender to discuss your academic abilities, make sure to choose a teacher, or professor who you have taken a class with recently and whose class you have done well in. Teachers whom you have taken multiple classes with, who have praised your work, or who nominate you for any type of academic award are excellent candidates to write your recommendation. When looking for a recommendation to discuss your non-academic strengths, coaches, club advisors, and mentors from other groups you are involved in are always good choices.

Step Two: Making Sure They Have The Right Information

Let’s start with the basics. Your recommender needs to know where you are applying, what your intended major or program is, and when you need the application by. Make sure to give your recommender this information in writing! Chances are your teachers and guidance counselor will be asked to write recommendations by several people, you cannot expect them to remember all the details of everyone’s applications. Because of this it is also important to ask your recommenders early.

In order to secure a great recommendation however, you need to go beyond the basics. I recommend preparing a folder for each person whom you are asking for recommendations. This will take a bit more time, but the organization will be beneficial and it won’t go unnoticed by the teachers writing your recommendations.

As mentioned above, each recommender should receive a folder with the information needed to write your recommendation. Remember, you’re not just looking for any recommendation, you want the best recommendation possible! So what did I include in my recommenders’ packets?

To start with, each recommender received a personalized letter thanking them for writing a recommendation for me, letting them know what information was included in the folder, and providing my contact information. Including contact information is especially important if you ask your recommender’s before the summer holiday, or during a term when you are not taking a class with them. The letter is also your opportunity to explain what program you are applying to, and why you are applying to that program. In addition to the letter, all of my packets included a formal resume, a list of all the activities I was involved in, and a copy of my transcript.

In addition to the information included in all packets I also created custom lists for each recommender with information pertaining specifically to the recommendations they were completing. The list included information such as the requirements for the recommendation (i.e. is there a form to fill out, specific questions to answer etc.), the date that recommendation was needed by, and the format for submitting that recommendation. Any forms needed were included in the packet, as well as envelopes needed for each recommendation. If the recommendation needs to be sent directly to the college by the person completing your recommendation, make sure to include an addressed and stamped envelope.

Step Three: Thank Yous and Follow Ups

Everyone appreciates politeness! Make sure to send each of your recommenders a personalized thank you note. These should be hand written. Do not rely on email for your thank you notes! If the recommendation was exceptionally in depth (such as some grad school applications) or the recommender went beyond your expectations to provide a great recommendation, and assist you in the application process, consider giving him or her a small, inexpensive gift.

Also be sure to keep the recommenders up-to-date on your plans. When applying to graduate school I needed anywhere from 3-5 recommendations for each application. I sent individual thank you notes to each person immediately after receiving their help, but then sent a mass email to everyone who had assisted me in the application process after my decision was made, thanking them once again for their assistance and informing them of what decision I had made.

Other Resources for Applying to College

Getting great recommendations is only one part of the college application process. Here are a few of my other Hubs on the applying to and paying for college, as well as links to other great college related Hubs and websites! If you have any other suggested resources, feel free to share them.

How to find Scholarships, Grants, And Other FREE Money for School
In this Hub I discuss ways to find scholarships, grants and other sources of money for college online, using a variety of popular scholarship-search websites.

The College Board
The College Board is best known for administering the SAT and AP Exams, but also has a wealth of information to help you with planning for college and your college search.

The Princeton Review
This website was my best friend throughout the entirety of my college search and application process. The Princeton Review offers prep for both the SAT and ACT (including a free practice test for both exams), as well as interesting college rankings on topics ranging from politics, to extra-curricular involvement, to the quality of the dorms and food.

Good Jobs For College Students
In this Hub I break down the best college jobs into two primary categories - jobs which are high paying, and jobs where you can be paid to study. If you're lucky you might even find a high paying job, that lets you study while you work!


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    • profile imageAUTHOR


      5 years ago

      Hi Drpennypincher -- thanks for the comment. I agree that a list of key achievements could definitely be just as helpful, and for a high school student applying to college, that's probably what a resume is going to be anyway! Most HS students don't have any significant work experience yet.

    • drpennypincher profile image

      Dr Penny Pincher 

      5 years ago from Iowa, USA

      I like your advice to give recommenders information such as a resume for reference. I have written letters of recommendation, and having information easily available makes it much easier to write a detailed letter of recommendation. If you don't have a resume prepared, even an outline of key achievements would be helpful.


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