What Makes a Good Recommendation Letter?
Recommendations are important parts of your college application. They are part of what’s called the “soft” side of your application – things like your personal essays or extracurriculars that, while not as easily quantifiable as factors like GPA or test scores, still shed light upon an applicant’s interests, talents, and academic ability. Application essay is the place where you present the judgement of yourself. Recommendation is the place where others place their judgement on you. Other’s view on you is an important part of your personality. Usually colleges seek recommendation from the officers of school who have known you closely either in academics or extra-curricular activities. Some colleges also seek peer recommendation.
Thus, your recommendation is not your view, so you cannot write a recommendation for yourself. However, if there are certain aspects of your personality, accomplishments, or unique circumstances that you’d like to be reflected in your essay, you can speak with your chosen recommenders about including them in your letter. This article focuses on coordination between you and your recommender in order to make the recommendation honest and accurate reflector of your abilities.
Here are the characteristics of successful letters of recommendation:
Demonstrates Academic Ability
You academic ability is your face while joining the college. Colleges put much emphasis on your academic ability while making admission decisions. In such a case, you would like your recommendation letters to showcase your unique talents and skills that make you an important contributor in any educational environment. Not every teacher understands you to the same level. Recommendations should from the teachers who you are well acquainted with.
If you have an excellent record of on-time assignments, insightful contributions to class discussions, and good test scores in any teacher’s class, that teacher will likely be eager to convey your smarts and diligence to an admissions committees.
Just academic ability is not enough. The letters should be able to convey your passion towards certain filed. A letter from a teacher of a subject you both did well in and thoroughly enjoyed can be double effective. This teacher can clearly tell about your competence in the classroom, but also the importance of your presence in the classroom along with your love for learning. Being able to showcase specifically what you would bring to a university makes for an effective letter.
It is better if you have an intimate teacher to write a recommendation for you. Intimacy is the first step of understanding a person. However, if no such name comes in your mind, it is okay to have a letter written by a teacher in whose class you performed well. Your recommendation letter has been well written if it showcases your natural ability in a subject, hard work, determination, and effort to succeed in a class, even if the course material doesn’t come naturally. Apart from academic skills, colleges also value hard work and struggle, although that doesn’t yield perfect results always.
Demonstrates Personal Characteristics
As we mentioned before, recommendation letters are a “soft” component of your application, more qualitative in nature than quantitative. SAT scores give a picture of the student’s ability, but nothing can be personally convincing.
Recommendation letters are a great opportunity for you to demonstrate personal qualities of which you are proud on your application. While you likely have incorporated these into your personal essay(s) in some way, hearing accounts of your generosity, eagerness to learn, or open-mindedness from the mouths of others can make an even stronger impression on the admission committees.
A good letter of recommendation not only communicates your strongest characteristics to admission committees but supports them with evidence as well. That is to say recommendation letters can be used as a verification for your college essays. This is why it’s important to solicit recommendations from recent teachers; they will be best equipped to recall specific instances in which you demonstrated laudable behavior.
For example, if you pride yourself on your tolerance of opposing viewpoints, a good recommendation letter would be one from a government or history teacher, as those subjects facilitate debate and discussion in class. A strong recommendation letter would contain both an acknowledgement of your tolerant nature, as well as an anecdote that supports this claim. This shows admission committees that you can be relied upon to bring this same attitude of tolerance to the classrooms of their school, and contribute to healthy and constructive debate on campus.
Discusses Applicant as Both a Student and an Individual
We’ve discussed how a letter of recommendation should address both your academic and personal strengths. One of the trickiest things to get right in a recommendation letter, but one that will ultimately make for the most effective letter, is to weave these characteristics together in a way that allows admission committees to understand how you would perform not only as a student in class, but also as a member of the greater campus community.
Many characteristics are conducive to success both in academics and in one’s personal life. For example, a student who is hard-working and dedicated can bring those qualities to their performance in the classroom, but also to the relationships they form with other students and their participation in extracurricular groups on campus. An effective letter highlights your best characteristics and demonstrates how you apply them across all spheres of your life.
At the end of the day, if a student has shown they have the baseline academic ability to succeed at a school, the most important consideration is how they’ll contribute to the campus community. If your letter of recommendation shows that your unique personality traits allow you to excel both academically and socially, it will go a long way in advancing your application.
Discusses Any Unique Personal Circumstances
For something to stand out, it should have something unique in itself. Some students have exceptional personal circumstances that affected their high school performance in some way. Such circumstances could include mental or physical illness for a long time, death of a family member, among others, can all have adverse effects on the educational activities of the students.
While you can use the Additional Information section of the Common App to discuss such circumstances, corroboration of these statements by a trusted official like a teacher or counselor can reassure admission committees that a dip in performance is not a reflection of a lack of ability or dedication on your part. If this applies to you, you should request that your recommenders devote some space on their letters to discussing your personal circumstances and reiterating that they are not reflective of your actual academic capacity.
Your recommendation should contain a first-hand account of your situation—otherwise, it may sound artificial. If you struggled with depression your junior year, don’t ask a recommender from sophomore year to discuss it in a letter, unless you maintained regular correspondence with them throughout your junior year (note that we recommend primarily seeking recommendations from junior year teachers).
Working with Your Recommender
You cannot be your own recommender. Also you cannot be the primary person to decide what contents are to be included in your recommendation.
If there are specific qualities, accomplishments, or circumstances you’d like your recommender to discuss in their letter, your best bet is to schedule a meeting with them to discuss your requests. To make things as easy for your recommender as possible (remember, they are doing you a favor), bring a resume and a printed copy of the points you’d like included in your letter along with you to the meeting, or send electronic copies of this information to your recommender beforehand.
Your recommender has the final say on what will be included in the letter, so do not try forcing the recommender to do anything against his/her will. Your recommender might happily include your say if you are polite and humble to her/him.
There are a couple ways of approaching this topic with your recommender that can diffuse the awkwardness of essentially asking another person to write about how great you are. One smart approach is to frame the discussion by first informing your teacher that many of the schools to which you’re applying are competitive and thanking them for taking the time to write a letter.
In any case, the chances are that the same personal qualities you notice in yourself, your teacher notices in you as well. If you have conducted yourself in a way you’re proud of in your teacher’s class, their letter will accurately reflect this. Though you may not be able to exert the degree of control over the contents of your letters of recommendation that you might wish, you can for the most part trust in your recommender’s ability to present a flattering and accurate image of you to admissions committees. They too are invested in your success and happiness.
However, it should be cautioned that over the years we have heard of recommenders who subscribe to a policy of intense honesty in their letters—even if their words may present an unflattering picture of you to admissions 0. For this reason, it’s important to select recommenders extremely carefully. Though it may be difficult to get a sense of the type of letters a teacher writes, especially because students technically aren’t supposed to look at the letters written for them, try speaking to upperclassmen or graduate friends to see if they have any insight into which teachers write great letters and which should be avoided.
Recommendation letters are certainly important insofar as they offer admissions committees an outsider’s perspective of you, and are one of the few portions of your application not totally under your control or discretion. Though you may feel anxious about not being able to create or even view beforehand a key component of your application, have faith in your recommenders. If you’re trying to decide whom to ask for your letters of recommendation, fill out our free consultation form below; our applications mentorship programs are designed to help you navigate the admissions process – including interviews, essays, recommendation letters, and more – with as little grief as possible.