4 Steps to Great Letters of Recommendation

Colleges ask for letters of recommendations because they value the information a well-written recommendation letter says about a prospective student. Letters reveal things about you that static grades and test scores cannot, provide personal opinions from a professional and can reveal positive aspects of your character.

Step 1: Know what you need.

  • The University of California, California State Universities and many other large public institutions do not accept recommendation letters.
  • For schools that do, plan on a minimum of two letters from teachers and one from your high school counselor.  There are a few schools that might require three.
  • Sometimes the letters are optional and sometimes not even required. Our suggestion is to submit one if you have a strong relationship with a teacher.

Step 2: Who should you ask and when?

  • Don’t automatically pick the teacher in the class in which you have an A. Some of the best letters come from teachers you had to ask for help during lunchtime or after school. 
  • Think about your areas of interest. For example, if you are planning to major in a STEM field, at least one teacher should be from that discipline.
  • Having a balance of one math or science and one English, history or foreign language teacher is a good idea for most students.
  • Consider asking teachers you’ve had more than once—a freshman and junior foreign language teacher can speak to your development as a student and a young adult.
  • If you’re an arts student, consider asking your band, choral or theater teacher.  Many schools allow non-academic, optional recommendation letters. If you have a job or are an athlete, including your boss or coach is also appropriate. Remember these people are in addition to, not a replacement for, the required recommendations.
  • Ask your teachers politely, in person and in late spring (May) of junior year.

Step 3: Follow your school’s protocol.

If your school uses Naviance, check under the “About Me” tab to see if there is a specific survey that needs to be filled out by you and possibly, your parent/guardian.

If your school does not have a packet or questionnaire of their own, it’s your job to give your teachers enough information to be able to write you a letter.  We suggest providing them with a note that includes one or more of the following:

  • Why you selected this particular teacher;
  • Highlights of your class achievements, or areas you worked to improve;
  • A description of a meaningful experience in the course, and how it impacted your work;
  • What you plan to study or your interest areas; and anything else they should know about you. Be sure to include an expression of thanks!
  • When you ask the teachers, be prepared to give them a copy of your note or questionnaire, and a résumé or extra-curricular activities list so they get an idea of all that you do outside of the classroom.
  • Provide them with the application deadlines for the schools to which you are applying.

Step 4:  Thanks

  • Thank them, thank them and thank them. Be sure to express your genuine appreciation for the work they’re doing on your behalf. 

What Looks Good on a College Résumé

We hear this question often—many times from students who have come to view the college application process as an exercise in spinning themselves into something they think a college wants, rather than an opportunity to exhibit who they really are and where their interests lie. The temptation to “amass” a long list of activities won’t help you get into the college of your choice. College admission officers are interested in reading and seeing meaningful engagement from students in what they do outside of school. They are quite capable of distinguishing between the student who does “stuff” just because and the student who does “stuff” because they love what they do.

Here is a short list on how to find an activity that shines a light on what you love.

1. Be Yourself. Colleges want to admit a diverse community of students with a wide range of talents and interests. If you’re not interested in sports, student council, or some other typical extracurricular activity, don’t worry about it. Colleges are just as intrigued by the student filmmaker or poetry club founder as they are by the power forward or student body president. Provided that you demonstrate a deep and consistent commitment, admissions officers will take notice, whatever the activity.

2. Go Deep. Assuming a leadership role, participating extensively (10-20 hours per week) in one or two pursuits will always outshine comparable applicants who merely dabble (an hour here, an hour there) in several or more activities. If you want to have an impact, find your niche, and improve your college admissions prospects in the process, forget the “laundry list” and commit to wholeheartedly following your true extracurricular interests.

3. Use Your Summer. Do you want to show colleges that you are serious about your extracurricular pursuits? Then use your summer to secure an internship, take a class, or enroll in a camp that will allow you to further explore your interests outside the classroom. There is no better way to impress an admissions rep than to forego those lazy summer days and use your vacation to better yourself.

4. Get a Job. Perhaps more than anything else, having a job demonstrates to an admissions committee that you are mature, practical, and ready to take on the responsibilities associated with adulthood. If you can get a job in your area of interest, great; if you can’t, get one anyway. Show colleges that you’re not afraid to get your hands dirty.

What you do is not about building a resume to get into college; it’s about finding yourself and showing the admissions rep your true calling (at least now). Follow your heart, strive for authenticity, and college will take care of itself. Besides you’ll have plenty of time to build a career resume later. If you need help finding something to do, give us a call, we have a lot of ideas to share. 

Decisions, Decisions, Decisions

Seniors, as you consider where you’re going to spend your next few years, remember this mantra by Frank Bruni, NYT Op Ed Columnist and Writer:  "Where You Go is Not Who You'll Be."  You will still be you, and what you do and how you handle challenges and opportunities represents who you are, not the sticker on the back of your car.  So, choose for you, and here are some tips to help you with that decision.

The first thing to consider is the academic offerings:

  • Do they have your program?
  • Do they have great advising?
  • How is the career center? Do they have lots of access to internships and research?
  • Are there specific General Ed requirements (a core curriculum) or Academic clusters?
  • Are you accepted directly into your major or is there pre-work for 2 years before you are formally admitted to your program?
  • How easy is it to change majors if you are uncertain as to your declared major?
  • Do they have a senior thesis (and do you want to do one)?

Some other items to rank:

  • Location
  • Ease getting to and from campus
  • School Size
  • Class size
  • Housing – learn how roommates are chosen
  • Student diversity
  • Clubs and Greek Life – do students have similar interests to yours?
  • Financing your education – are there any hidden costs?

Then, it’s time to visit, and if at all possible, never choose a college where you haven’t set foot on campus:

  • Do the admitted student’s day
  • Get a calendar of orientation, registration, schools terms
  • Sit in on a class
  • Meet a professor or 2
  • Meet the advising staff – how do you get credit for an AP or college credits you’ve earned in high school?  Where are the career and tutoring centers?
  • Do an overnight
  • Tour the surrounding area (is it safe, can you get to the grocery store, inexpensive places to eat off campus, public transport, how will you get home)
  • Eat at the cafeteria and hang out in the student union. You’ll be eating and hanging out for 4 years if all goes well!!!  Ask at the admissions office if they have complimentary tickets for the cafeteria.  While there:
  1. Eavesdrop – what are the students talking about?
  2. Are there visible cliques or do groups seem to be integrating well?
  3. Are students heads down or engaged in conversation (if they’re heads down – remember, it might be mid-terms or finals weeks.
  4. Do students “grab and go” or “stay and gab”?
  5. Talk to students, ask them about their school, what major, what they like and dislike. Most of them will be happy to talk to you. 
  6. As you are researching all of these components, start to compare your schools. Are there any compelling reasons to attend or conversely, any big red flags? What is your gut instinct telling you? Take your time and trust yourself. If you are still undecided when you return from your visits, find a trusted advisor to review your options and gain objective feedback.

Once you’ve decided, and after you’ve put down your deposit on your chosen school (BY MAY 1st!), make sure you notify the other schools that you have decided not to attend. This will allow those schools to make waitlist decisions and allow anxious students an opportunity at their dreams. Lastly, gear up and start the countdown to your new home!