Your college application has quite a load to pull. Colleges are supposed to decide who will make it to their campuses - and who won’t - by looking through a form and crunching some numbers.
And of course they need to know if your numbers need to be up to what they’re looking for, but they also want to be sure they’re finding matches for their schools. In other words, they’re trying to get to know their candidates a bit before they decide whether they’ve found a good fit for their school.
One way they do this is by requiring letters of recommendation.
Colleges will commonly ask for three recommendations: one from your counselor, and two from teachers. If you’re in a large school, there’s a good chance that you and your counselor are not well acquainted. But colleges will still see this recommendation as useful to them because counselors are situated to see how students fit in with the school as a whole. So now that you’re privy to this insider information, see if you can make the effort to get to know your counselor now, so that they’ll have a good impression of you when it comes time to write your recommendation.
Your two teacher recommendations will probably be more personal. Ideally, you’d like to find two junior year teachers from different fields. We say junior year because that will be the most recent grade in which a teacher has had the better part of a full year to get to know you well. It should be said, though, that if we thought that we didn’t have two junior-year teachers who would give us a glowing review, we’d prefer a senior, or even sophomore-year one we really had a connection with, who will do nothing but say great things about us. And if you can get letters from teachers from two different fields – say English and science, or history and math – that just goes to show your college admissions department what a desirable, well-rounded property they’re looking at. But at least one of these letters should be from a teacher in your field; an engineering program is going to be somewhat more interested in hearing about your huge left-brain gifts from your physics teacher than about your performance art presentation on creative skipping from your art teacher. That can certainly help, but it won’t be weighed as heavily as your math or science performance.
And choose teachers who will speak well of you personally, and well as academically. Your college will have a basic idea of your academic skills from your transcripts and application. But while digging through huge piles of paper, all from mysterious people they don’t know at all, the student who seems thoughtful and respectful is likely to have an edge over the one who looks like he/she is mostly interested in clubs and setting off the fire alarms. So, if you had the best year in a chemistry class since Marie Curie graduated, but you also were a team member in the blowing up the lab prank, that’s probably not the teacher you want recommending you.
The best recommendations we’ve written have always been for students that we could recommend wholeheartedly. Sure, we address how smart and capable they are, but we also spend a lot of time discussing their maturity, and how they’re exactly the sort of high-quality human being any school would want to have in their classrooms. We do what we can to put any student in the best light possible, but if a student doesn’t seem interested in growing up and showing some character and self-discipline, no matter how we try to be kind, the letter just will not have the same gusto, and will never be as convincing.
And if you want a good rec, be sure to help out your teacher, or counselor. As teachers, we could have as many as 240 students every year. A counselor can deal with three or four times that many. So if they can’t remember your every detail, you’re not being slighted. Help yourself by helping them. Work up a sort of resumé with all of your dazzling accomplishments. If your history project was the one that rewrote the history books by revealing that the Hundred Years War actually went 116, remind them. If you pitched in on your teacher’s favorite charity project, remind them. If you were the only grownup student in a class of clowns, and the teacher knew that your maturity could be relied upon, they tend to admire things like that. Remind them.
You’d also like to show that you’re tough enough for college wherever you can. No admissions officer is looking for the next sad victim in the epidemic of first year students who fail out of school in the first year because they weren’t disciplined enough to handle the workload. If you are the one who shepherded through a tough biology project when it looked like everything was falling apart, see if you can get your teacher to mention that. If you helped lead the debate team to the world series of debates, despite the fact that you had a schedule full of college prep classes and half the team was down with the vapors, it wouldn’t hurt to refresh your debate advisor’s memory.
If you have a story of surviving a tough challenge in your family/home life that your teachers know about, see if you can get them to comment on that.
This is especially true in areas that go beyond your self-interest. One of our students had immigrated to the US, and English was far from her first language. But despite the fact that she had to work like crazy to keep up with the native speakers in her classes (while becoming fluent in a third language), she still went out on weekends to volunteer as a tutor at a kids’ club. It doesn’t matter what school you’re shooting for, there will be no shortage of self-absorbed, please-please-pay-attention-to-me types. Most schools won’t be desperate to find another one.
Show them, whenever possible, the sort of community member you have been at your school. Colleges like to think that part of their purpose is to prepare the ground for a solid community beyond their walls. They want that reflected in their own students, and the only way they have of gauging that is to sift through the students who seemed to be good community members in high school.
It’s best to be sure that your recommendation is sealed too, so that your college can see that you haven’t had the chance to look it over. It shows that you’re confident in your teacher’s opinion of you, and that you didn’t need to weed out fourteen bad recommendations to get to the good ones.
Finally, choose a teacher who will take your recommendation seriously, and make your letter genuinely personal. A form letter is not going to have the same impact, no matter how great your relationship with the teacher has been. And be sure to ask early. Give your teachers a month or more to come up with something that will grab an admissions officer’s attention, and make you stand out from the crowd. Teachers have lives of their own, are busy running classes, and probably have a stack of about 500 requests for recommendations. Rush them, and your recommendation will probably reflect the hurry.
Then, when you’re all done, take the time to write a letter of thanks to everyone who took their time to help you, and put their name on the line for you. This basic courtesy shows them that they were right in judging you to be such an extraordinary person, and worthy of your dream schools.