Wondering how to get great college recommendations? It’s normal to be nervous about choosing recommenders, and about asking them to endorse you. Here are tips that can alleviate some of your stress.

  • Choose people who know you well.

Recommendation letters are a neutral part of most applications – teachers who agree to write letters generally say positive things. However, the recommendations that stand out help the committee get to know you on a more personal level. Do you have a teacher who has also been your coach or club leader? Has someone seen you handle difficult team dynamics, lead your peers or persevere under adverse circumstances? Enthusiastic, specific letters enhance your candidacy.

  • Listen to your gut.

Do you have a teacher who seems like the right choice on paper, but you just don’t get a warm feeling from them? Or, have you asked someone who hesitated or said “Are you sure that there aren’t people who know you better?” If so, pay attention to these red flags and steer clear.

  • Choose 2 current teachers.

Most colleges will ask you to submit letters from 2 teachers who have taught you in 11th or 12th grade. There are exceptions, and you might wind up applying to a school that only asks for one letter, and/or that doesn’t care when you were in the recommender’s class. It’s nevertheless more efficient to ask two current teachers, so that you are covered for all colleges. (It can be a bonus if the teacher also had you earlier in high school, so that they can discuss your growth.)

  • Don’t limit yourself to classes where you got an A.

Some of the best recommendations talk about how you didn’t give up, even though the subject didn’t come easily. Colleges look for resilience, determination and the ability to take risks.

  • Any core subject is fine.

Although there are a few exceptions, like MIT, which asks for one recommendation from a Math/Science teacher and one from a Humanities teacher, it’s usually totally ok to ask the teachers who know you best, regardless of subject.

  • Ask early.

Your high school might have rules about when you are allowed to approach teachers, in which case you should obviously follow them. However, in general it’s in your best interest to ask sooner rather than later. (After Spring break of your junior year is an appropriate time, in most instances.) Popular teachers might reach capacity, so asking earlier means that they are more likely to have space to write on your behalf. Also, since you are ideally submitting some applications early action or early decision, you want to make sure that the letters are ready in time for those deadlines.

  • Be prepared to collaborate.

Good recommenders often ask you to sit down with them and talk about what colleges you are interested in, what you might want to study, and about your strengths and weaknesses as a candidate. It’s also common for teachers to send you a questionnaire addressing these themes. In either case, take the time to come up with thoughtful answers. (And it’s a great idea to initiate this conversation with your recommender, even if they don’t ask you for more information.)

  • Remember that they are doing you a favor.

Yes, this is part of the job description for high school teachers. Nevertheless, your recommenders are investing personally in your success, and it’s appropriate to be gracious and appreciative. Most teachers are invested in your success, and will be happy to help your target schools understand why you are a great applicant.





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Karen Marks

Karen has more than 12 years of experience evaluating candidates for admission to Dartmouth College and to the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth. Since founding North Star Admissions Consulting in 2012, she has helped applicants gain admission to the nation’s top schools, including Stanford, Harvard, Yale, Wharton, MIT, Tuck, Columbia, Kellogg, Booth, Haas, Duke, Johnson, Ross, NYU, UNC, UCLA, Georgetown and more. Clients have been awarded more than $70 million dollars in scholarships, and more than 98% have gotten into one of their top choice schools.
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