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The whole business of recommendation letters can be pretty intimidating. What if they say no? What if they remember the C+ I got on the first exam and mention it in the letter? What if it’s super generic? There’s no need to freak out if you trust that you were a great student. But there are a lot of things you can do to receive a particularly glowing letter to highlight your college application.

Know the teacher personally for at least one school year

One of my teachers told me about an awkward encounter, “One girl I’ve never seen in any of my classes or clubs asked me for a recommendation letter the other day, and I had to tell her that I can’t write a letter for someone whose name I don’t even know.” Hopefully, this never happens to you because that’s terrifying. Basically, you really should not be asking for a letter if you’ve been in their class for only a few weeks. Unless you’re particularly extraordinary, you shouldn’t be banking on senior year teachers whom you’ve just met to write on your behalf; start narrowing down choices during junior year.

Choose core classes

English, math, science, and history are core subjects. Your freshman gym class or health elective is not. It should be obvious why teachers of core classes can speak more to your abilities as a student than the “easy A” class everyone enrolls in.

Get to know them outside of a strictly academic context

Is your AP U.S. Government teacher also your quiz bowl advisor? Does your biology teacher also moonlight as your tennis team’s instructor? Knowing your rec writer outside of the classroom is invaluable. They’ll not only know more than your study habits or work ethic, but also bolster that knowledge of you with how you function as more than a student. They’ll have a better grasp of you as a team player or leader. Admissions officers always look for qualities beyond the books. This isn’t to say that you should actively seek out activities that your teachers advise, but it doesn’t hurt to have connections with them through extracurricular avenues.

Take multiple classes with them (or be a TA for their class)

A lot of high school teachers will teach different levels of a subject or will teach a variety of courses. Try to take as many courses with the same teacher. For example, if you take the honors level of the class and a teacher also instructs the AP level, that’s two years they’ve known you! They’ll be able to really speak about your growth as a student and development is a very important component of an ideal applicant. Alternatively, if your school offers “teaching assistant” elective courses, sign up with them and help them with their lower level classes.

Bring them your resume and transcript

These are all gestures for common courtesy in asking for a LOR. Never ask for a recommendation letter through email – always ask in person. Always put in a request at the very least two to three weeks in advance. Bring a hard copy of your resume (so they know what other activities you’re involved in) and your updated transcript (so they know what other classes you’ve taken).

Have a genuine conversation about your future plans and interests

The more personalized a letter of recommendation is, the more sincere and unique of a representation it will be of you. I always found it helpful to sit down with them and discuss what colleges I was interested in, why, and what I wanted to study. If they have an idea of your future, they can frame a letter to reflect that.

Oh, and don’t forget to write a follow-up thank you letter to properly express your gratitude!

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the author

Jilliann Pak hails from the suburbs of SoCal but is currently attending school across the coast at Johns Hopkins University. When she’s not complaining about the cold weather or sleeping in the library, she’s probably eating, cuddled up into a blanket burrito, or watching Parks and Recreation, preferably all at once.

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