Letters of Recommendation that Gets Results

* Writing Letters of Recommendation
* Requesting Them From Others
* Using Them to Best Advantage


How to Request Letters of Recommendation for
Educational Purposes

Information, examples, and advice regarding student recommendation letters: admission, scholarships, and internships. Includes writing, requesting, and using letters effectively to open doors.

When students apply to undergraduate or graduate programs, the application process usually includes at least two recommendations from teachers or others who can honestly evaluate academic ability and potential as a scholar. These student recommendation letters count a lot in making the decision on whether or not to accept the student, so it is important that you provide the admissions committee with the kind of information that is most helpful.

Deciding Whom to Ask

By carefully choosing the people who will write your recommendations, you can ensure that each of your student recommendation letters shares a different positive quality about you. Recommenders should be people who know you well and know about the quality of work you've done in their classes or at their work sites, such as a teacher or a nurse who supervised you at a volunteer job.

Recommenders should write positive student recommendation letters detailing your academic abilities, personal traits, and motivation for higher education. Taken together, your student recommendation letters will portray a well-rounded view of you.

Before you ask anyone from outside of your school to write you a recommendation, make sure this is okay with the college to which you are applying. Teacher recommendations carry a lot of weight since you are applying for admission as a student; previous performance in the classroom is probably the best indication of future performance. However, since virtually all the student recommendation letters the admission boards receive are from teachers, including a letter from someone else provides novelty and could make you stand out.

To help decide whom you’ll ask, make a list of possible recommenders. Think about their position (high school principal, chairwoman of the biology department, English teacher, supervisor of your volunteer job at the community hospital, etc.) and then ask yourself:

  • Does each person know me well enough to write a strong letter ?
  • Does each person think highly of me?
  • Which set of people can write student recommendation letters that will best reflect my background and strengths?
  • Which set of people will be most highly regarded by the college admission’s committee?

Now you can pick the strongest candidates from your list. You can also ask your mentor, a teacher, or friends to look over your list and suggest who they think are the strongest candidates.

If you know someone who could be a great recommender but who probably lacks the skills required to write an effective letter, don't worry. It is common for candidates to ghostwrite their own student recommendation letters. Just make sure the recommender agrees with everything that is said and is comfortable with this process.

Guiding Your Recommenders

Once you decide whom you are going to ask, think about the different aspects of your background, character, academics, and activities that you want reflected in your student recommendation letters -- which should be the things you believe are most attractive to the admissions boards! Each letter should focus on things that are not covered in your essay so that the college can get a broad sense of you and your skills.

Next to the names on your list, describe what you would like each recommender to emphasize. For example, your list might look like the following:

  • Mr. Lanieux, chemisty teacher: good grades, class participation, interest in science, tutored other students, participation in chemistry district rally competition, developed algebraic method of balancing chemical equations, career goals in science
  • Mr. Roso, English teacher: writing and conceptualization skills; public-speaking; leadership skills; interest in medieval literature; academic performance in advanced placement classes; goal of combining speaking and writing skills with a career in science.
  • Ms. Morgavi, student government advisor: participation in high school student government; leadership and public speaking; interpersonal skills; commitment to representing all groups of students; goal of continuing involvement in leadership activities.
  • Mr. Waggenhauser, moderator of student volunteers: community involvement; work with the deaf and retarded; devotion to work; ability to relate well to people from diverse backgrounds; participation in other humanitarian activities (select a few key activities).

You should also provide your recommenders with information about your background, any hardships you have overcome, and your personal goals and skills. Some additional items you may ask your recommenders to mention are:

  • Your personal background, including your family situation, such as if you will be the first in your family to attend college.
  • Hardships you have experienced in seeking higher education, such as being from a low-income background or living with parents who do not speak English.
  • Personal strengths that will make you a good college student, such as being inquisitive, motivated, and hard-working.
  • Your commitment to other students and your community, as demonstrated by your volunteer work, willingness to help other students, and involvement in humanitarian causes.
  • Your leadership skills and experiences.

Writing Your Recommenders

When you finish your list of what you want each recommender to emphasize, write a formal note requesting that they write you a letter of recommendation. Your student recommendation letters should be personalized for each recommender and should list the specific skills and attributes you want them to emphasize. Remember, the more detailed your letter, the easier it will be for your recommender to write a strong argument in support of your application using the information you provide.

You should also provide your recommenders with a simple resume that describes the classes you have taken, your grades, and your work and volunteer experiences.

Meeting with Your Recommenders

After you finish your letters, call or stop by to see your recommenders. Ask them when you can set up a meeting to talk with them for a few minutes. Make sure that this meeting is at a convenient time for them. Schedule the meeting at least a month before your student recommendation letters are due so that each recommender has plenty of time to write you a great letter.

When you meet with your recommenders, give them the personalized letter you wrote and your resume. Remind them how hard you have worked to get this far and how excited you are about attending college. Let them know that their letter will be an important part of your application.

Finally, thank them for supporting you and writing the letter. Be sure to take stamped envelopes that the recommender can use to mail your letters. The envelopes should be addressed either to you or to the colleges to which you are applying (depending upon the preference of the college).

Following Up With Your Recommenders

After you meet with each of your recommenders, make a note in your calendar to follow up with them in a few weeks to be sure that they send their student recommendation letters before they are due.

Thanking Your Recommenders

When you know the student recommendation letters have been sent, write a personal thank-you note to each recommender expressing your appreciation for their help.

General Tips for Students

  • Don't wait until the last minute to ask for your recommendation. More than likely, you will be denied. If not, you are likely to skew the results against yourself – either because your referrer is forced to do a quick-and-dirty job, or because he writes less glowing comments due to the irritation you have cause him.
  • Your request needs to be proper and polite. Remember that you are requesting a significant favor.
  • Be sure to indicate for what purpose the letter is being written. The more specific the purpose, the more specific (and pertinent) the letter.
  • Supply as a minimum:
    1. Your full name
    2. Classes you have taken from the referrer (also when and grade received)
    3. Other coursework that is relevant (when and grades received)
    4. Special skills or talents and how you demonstrated to them
    5. Statement of career / academic interests and goals
    6. List of relevant extracurricular and summer activities
    7. Honors received
    8. Full name, title, and complete mailing address of the person to whom each letter should be written.
  • Waive your rights to read the letter or form. Recipients place more credence on student recommendation letters which are not read by students, and many teachers prefer to send their recommendations directly to the schools to which you are applying. Including a pre-stamped and addressed envelope for sending the letter to the recipient is a nice touch.
  • If your student recommendation letters are being sent directly to the college, you need to arrange for them to notify you when your student recommendation letters arrive. Prepare a self-addressed (to you), stamped postcard with this message on the back: "To (whomever the letter of recommendation is to be sent): Please mail this card if a letter of recommendation concerning me has been received from (whomever you are asking to write)." Sign your name, and ask the referee to include it with his/her letter or form. If you do not receive the card in a few weeks, check on the status of the letter.
  • Of course, having your student recommendation letters sent directly to the college introduces more risk for you. If you are in doubt about the kind of recommendation the referee will write, then just ask. Most teachers agree to share the contents of their student recommendation letters even in cases when colleges would prefer they didn't.

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