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The teacher looks up. Hovering in the doorway is a student who looks almost sorry to be invited to sit down.

“Dr. Corcoran, will you write me a letter of recommendation?”

I make sure to smile warmly at the student, whose reason for choosing me is inevitably, “You like me.”

“Yes, of course,” I say, as I have said dozens of times. “Let’s talk about how I can help you.”

I think of this often in my current position as a private college admissions counselor. I think of it every time a student tell me, “I’ve asked my history teacher to write me a letter of recommendation. She likes me.”

And I’m always concerned that the teacher will base the letter based on exactly what the student has provided as a rationale: “You like me.”

There’s a better way to ask for the letter of recommendation that will really help. First, change your perspective. Most students think of a recommendation as something they ask for, and then check off their to-do list. Start thinking of a letter of recommendation as something YOU work for!

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Avoid this big, big mistake

Nooooooo, I do NOT mean that you should write your own letter of recommendation. Sure, you know a dozen superlatives to describe your work, and you can be sure to stress how much you like yourself. Believe it or not, that’s not what the best letter is all about. Hint: It’s about your qualifications for college.

Make it easy for your teacher

Once I had reassured the student, I would ask the student to help me by providing information that would result in the best possible letter, rather than general fan mail. Think about it: Your teacher probably doesn’t like facing a blank page any more than you do! Here are the questions. The answers to the following questions provided the outline for my letter.

An added bonus was that it made the task easier and faster for me, meaning that the letter got written quickly and well. It did not sit in my to-do pile, daring me to invent from scratch a “letter of recommendation.”

1. What are you applying for?

Be specific. The person writing the letter can be more persuasive if s/he knows you’re applying to study history at particular research universities on the East Coast of the U.S., or to study chemistry at small liberal arts colleges, than if s/he only knows you’re “applying to college.”

2. Why do you think you are a good candidate?

Make an appointment to have a talk with your teacher about your plans, and about why you have chosen the colleges to which you will apply. S/he can offer more detailed support of, for example, the extensive library research you did on your final history paper, or of the attention to detail you showed in the laboratory. Were your contributions to class always considerate and well-argued? A college with small discussion classes wants to know that. Do you plan to look immediately for an undergraduate research opportunity in your teacher’s field? How will your teacher know, if you don’t talk about it?

3. Why me?

Remind your teacher gently of any work you did in his or her class that was very successful, or which you enjoyed. I was always glad to have a student refresh my memory about an essay to which I had responded with enthusiasm. After all, it was last year, and I might have graded 200 papers since then. And how would I know it was the project that caused you to decide to major in comparative literature, unless you tell me. Other important factors might be that some of your colleges ask that international students get a letter from someone who taught them in English; this tells me to write with conviction about your linguistic skills, and to mention any steps you are taking to improve.

If you tell me what others letters you expect, I might get a sense of how to balance their commentary and mine, to make sure your application package as a whole has maximum range.

“I’m asking my math teacher, Mr. Davis to address my quantitative reasoning and my decision to major in theoretical rather than experimental physics,” you might say. “I wonder if I could ask you to address my communication skills, so the colleges won’t think I’m a total nerd. Remember that you really liked the way I organized my presentation of an analysis of the sermon in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man? I worked really hard on that one, so that I wouldn’t pass out with nervousness. Yes, That was the first time I got through a stand-up speech without fainting.”

Who knew.

Athena Advises

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Bear in mind that teachers, too, dread facing a blank page. If you can help them envision that page, you’ll make their job easier.

When’s the best time to ask for a letter of recommendation for college? Some schools recommend that you approach your teachers at the end of eleventh grade. While this gives popular teachers a long lead time, the trade off is that they may write a letter based on the eleventh-grade you. So if your school recommends that you talk with your teachers now, remember that this should be a preliminary discussion. Tell your teachers that you will come back in September with new material to show! This could be information from your summer projects, new thoughts about your college plans, or your completed core application essay. If your recommenders will be your twelfth-grade teachers, the new data might be a great score on the first exam of twelfth grade.

If you’re an international student, be sure your teacher knows how to upload a letter to the Common App, or exactly where to send paper copies. There too, you can make the teacher’s job easier!

And be sure to check whether the colleges to which you are applying require specific letters. For example, if you plan to major in science or engineering, a program might require that one of the letters be from a math teacher. Again, you are responsible for sorting this out.

If you’re an Athena Mentor student and need help fine tuning your choice of recommenders, how and when to approach them, contact Athena Mentor for personalized assistance.

Dr. Marlena Corcoran
Founder and CEO