Letters of Recommendation

How to Get the Best Letters for Your Application

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Most colleges with holistic admissions, including a significant percentage of the the schools that use the Common Application, will want at least one letter of recommendation as part of your application. The letters provide an outside perspective on your abilities, personality, talents, and preparedness for college.

Key Takeaways: Letters of Recommendation

  • Ask a teacher who knows you well, not a distant celebrity.
  • Give your recommender plenty of time and information.
  • Ask politely, and follow up with a thank you note.

While letters of recommendation are rarely the most important part of a college application (your academic record is), they can make a difference, especially when the recommender knows you well. The guidelines below will help you know who and how to ask for letters.

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Ask the Right People to Recommend You

Many students make the mistake of getting letters from distant acquaintances who have powerful or influential positions. The strategy often backfires. Your aunt’s neighbor’s stepfather may know Bill Gates, but Bill Gates doesn’t know you well enough to write a meaningful letter. This type of celebrity letter will make your application seem superficial.

The best recommenders are those teachers, coaches, and mentors you have worked with closely. Choose someone who can speak in concrete terms about the passion and energy that you bring to your work. If you do choose to include a celebrity letter, make sure it is a supplemental letter of recommendation, not a primary one. If a college asks for just a single letter, you will usually want to ask a teacher who can speak about your academic potential and personal qualities.

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Ask Politely

Remember, you are asking for a favor. Your recommender has a right to refuse your request. Don’t assume that it is anyone’s duty to write a letter for you, and realize that these letters take a lot of time out of your recommender’s already busy schedule. Most teachers, of course, will write you a letter, but you should always frame your request with the appropriate “thank yous” and gratitude. Even your high school counselor whose job description probably does include providing recommendations will appreciate your politeness, and that appreciation is likely to be reflected in the recommendation.

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Allow Enough Time

Don’t request a letter on Thursday if it is due on Friday. Respect your recommender and give him or her a couple weeks minimum to write your letters. Your request already imposes on your recommender’s time, and a last-minute request is an even greater imposition. Not only is it rude to ask for a letter close to a deadline, but you will also end up with a rushed letter that is far less thoughtful than is ideal. If for some reason a rushed request is unavoidable—go back to #2 above (you'll want to be extremely polite and express a lot of gratitude).

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Provide Detailed Instructions

Make sure your recommenders know exactly when the letters are due and where they should be sent. Also, be sure to tell your recommenders what your goals are for college so that they can focus the letters on relevant issues. It's always a good idea to give your recommender an activities resume if you have one, for he or she may not know all of the things that you have accomplished.

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Provide Stamps and Envelopes

You want to make the letter-writing process as easy as possible for your recommenders. Be sure to provide them with the appropriate pre-addressed stamped envelopes if the school wants hard copies of the letter. If the process is all online, be sure to share the proper link with your recommender. This step also helps ensure that your letters of recommendation will get sent to the right location.

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Don't Be Afraid to Remind Your Recommenders

Some people procrastinate and others are forgetful. You don’t want to nag anyone, but an occasional reminder is always a good idea if you don't think your letters have been written yet. You can accomplish this in a polite way. Avoid a pushy statement like, “Mr. Smith, have you written my letter yet?” Instead, try a polite comment such as, “Mr. Smith, I just want to thank you again for writing my letters of recommendation.” If Mr. Smith hasn’t actually written the letters yet, you’ve now reminded him of his responsibility.

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Send Thank You Cards

After the letters have been written and submitted, follow up with thank you notes to your recommenders. A simple card shows that you value their efforts. It’s a win-win situation: you end up looking mature and responsible, and your recommenders feel appreciated. An email thank you is better than nothing, but an actual card will be a pleasant surprise to your recommender.

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Your Citation
Grove, Allen. "Letters of Recommendation." ThoughtCo, Aug. 25, 2020, thoughtco.com/letters-of-recommendation-788889. Grove, Allen. (2020, August 25). Letters of Recommendation. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/letters-of-recommendation-788889 Grove, Allen. "Letters of Recommendation." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/letters-of-recommendation-788889 (accessed March 31, 2023).

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