A sheet of paper my high school counselor had me fill out - ultimately extremely helpful! Image from author's personal archives.

A sheet of paper my high school counselor had me fill out–ultimately extremely helpful!
Image from author’s personal archives.

The difference between a great letter of recommendation for college and just a good or mediocre one comes down to the relationship between the student and the teacher, mentor, or college counselor/advisor who’s writing the letter. Sometimes, students might have a teacher who knows them really well both as a person and a student. But in some cases, teachers might only have a one-dimensional perspective of a student, knowing only their grades and very little about who they are as a person.

The chances are that admissions officers read hundreds of recommendations about students who are hard workers, good at teamwork, and study well. That’s why, as a student, it’s important to remind your recommenders of your own accomplishments and personal traits so they can give you an extra edge and make your recommendations a little more memorable.

And with that, below are some tips on what to give your recommendation writers so they can craft the perfect letter.

Be specific about the schools you’re applying to.

A lot of top schools receive a huge amount of amazing applications–more than they can afford to accept. So, on top of narrowing down their pool of applicants to the top students, schools will often select the students who are the best fit for their school.

Give your recommendation writers a little blurb about the schools you’re applying to, why you chose to apply to them (this article gives a good breakdown on specifics), and what makes you a great fit for these schools in particular. That way, they can write your recommendation in a way that will make admissions officers see why you’re perfect for their school right off the bat.

Brag about yourself. (Humbly.)

A lot of schools don’t offer interviews, so your recommendations are there to give them a sense of who you really are. Giving your recommenders your resume or CV, high school transcript, and intended major of study is a good start. To go the extra mile, it might be helpful to answer some typical interview questions on paper. To name a few, you could talk about your strengths and weaknesses, any obstacles you’ve grown from, your favorite activity outside of academics, what you may have done differently in your high school experience (or whether you think you made the most out of it), words you think best describe you, and what you’re expecting to get out of your college experience. Basically, rather than just throwing words and numbers at your rec writers, describe yourself with anecdotes to paint a colorful image of who you are.

Explain where your application materials need explaining.

Often, students will have a point in their high school careers at which there’s a blip in their grades or a period during which they were otherwise not performing normally. Colleges will want to know why, and if you think one of your recommenders will be able to provide additional insight as to what affected you or (even better) how resilient you were in the face of an obstacle, remind them of that.

Tell them why you chose them to write your recommendations.

In my opinion, this is one of the most important things you can do! Recommendations also have a lot to do with who you ask to write them. You can make sure your recommenders know why you chose them in several different ways. By telling them what exactly you learned from their class (not just academically but even in terms of life skills), you let them know how much of an impact they had on your life. This, in turn, will show how much you appreciate their support and may even increase the care and effort they put into your recommendation.

It’s also helpful if one of your recommenders is a teacher of a class that relates to your intended major. In that case, make sure they know what their class contributed to your personal goals in terms of what you want to pursue in life. If you performed well in their class, your teacher can highlight what about you they think will make you a good student in that field.

Interesting facts.

Is there anything else you think is unique about you? Although you may have already highlighted your hobbies or other things that make you stand out in your resume or personal essays, recommenders are definitely people who can provide alternate perspectives and, in the end, reassure colleges that you’re the fantastic, collegiate person you are!



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the author

Priyanka is going into her sophomore year at Fordham University as a Psychology major on the pre-med track. When she's not living inside her textbooks, she enjoys debating whether or not she should minor in this or that, biking (when she isn't being attacked by pollen) and playing tennis recreationally. While still making full use of her Netflix account (Doctor Who, Grey's Anatomy, and Star Trek anyone?) and tumblr, she also proudly bears a reputation as a workaholic with a proclivity for parentheses (oops).

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