Getting Great Letters of Recommendation

letterSecuring great letters of recommendations can be critical for college applications (especially selective schools), jobs, and other opportunities. A good letter of recommendation should offer qualitative information about you that grades and test scores cannot. It should give insight into your talents and personality, and make you seem like a can’t-miss prospect. It is best that these letters are sent by your recommenders confidentially.

Letters can be written by virtually any adult familiar with you: teachers, counselors, administrators, coaches, extracurricular advisors, employers, community leaders, clergy, or even just a reputable family friend. But how can you obtain the best ones? Here are some tips:

Ask. The first step, obviously, is to ask. But more importantly, ask your recommender unequivocally if they can provide an enthusiastic letter. A lukewarm letter can sink an application. You can save face by posing the question like this: “Do you feel you have enough information about me to provide a superior letter?” Be prepared to accept “no” as your answer, and have backup writers in mind.

Provide letter writers with plenty of time. We recommend you ask for letters of recommendation a minimum of six weeks before you need it delivered; the sooner, the better. A good letter can take an hour or more to write, and that time can be difficult for a teacher, community leader, or employer to find, particularly because you are likely not the only one who needs a letter written on their behalf. Moreover, many letters need to be mailed, which can take several days to make it through the USPS, the college’s internal mail delivery system, and be sorted in the admissions office.

Provide them with plenty of resources. If you have a resume, provide this to your letter writers to help them populate their letters. If not, a list of activities in and out of school will serve the same purpose. A copy of your transcript may be helpful as well. You can also just make an appointment to talk with them about yourself; have a few specific things in mind to highlight and refresh them of your past time together.

Remind them. As your deadlines near (two to three weeks out), reconnect with your recommenders and give them a gentle reminder; far from being an annoyance, it is often appreciated.

Follow up with the admissions officers at the colleges and universities to which you are applying. Most will verify that an application is complete. It is your responsibility to ensure the letters you need are received.

Be sure to make good connections throughout your academic career to have several people you can turn to when you need a letter down the road.