Great letters of recommendation probably won’t get you into a school if your grades and test scores aren’t up to snuff, but they can absolutely help you stand out among the rest of the pool of qualified potential students. While of course you can’t control what the letters say, there are some simple things you can do to help make sure they’re as good as possible.Be Respectful and Polite
Of course, when you ask for a letter of recommendation, you’ll want to use your manners and remember to say “please” and “thank you.” You’re asking these people to do you favors, so don’t go into the situation with with an attitude of expectation or entitlement.
With that in mind, ask early! Make your initial request at least a month before the letter is due. This is a way of respecting your recommender’s time and life outside of work. If you ask for a letter the day before it’s due, you’re basically asking, “Will you please cancel whatever evening plans you had to write a letter talking about how great I am?” Not a great start. If you ask well in advance, you’re saying, “I’m respectful enough of your time and busy life that I want to give you as much flexibility as possible, since -- after all -- I’m asking you to do a favor for me.”
Whoever you ask probably won’t make a specific mention of it if you don’t do a great job of these things. But you want a glowing letter of recommendation from someone who has just been reminded all over again of why he or she is so impressed with you, right?
Make It as Easy as Possible for Your Recommender
Help your recommender remember exactly why you stand out among your peers. You can do this somewhat subtly, by starting off with something like: “Hi, Mr. Smith! I was in your American History class last semester, and I really appreciated the chance to research and write about America’s contribution to civil rights movements worldwide.” This also spares Mr. Smith the hassle of digging his records to remember just what your project was or which semester you took which class.
Don’t make your potential recommender spend time researching how or when to submit your letter of recommendation. Print out a sheet saying how to submit it (By mail? To what address? Online? Where and how?) and the due date, with specifics (is the due date for when it’s mailed, when it’s received by mail, or when it’s submitted online?). If it needs to be submitted by mail, include an envelope you’ve already stamped and addressed. All of this will demonstrate your responsibility, maturity, and thoughtfulness.
Unless your recommender knows you exceptionally well, he or she will probably want to hear more than this. Be prepared to discuss your course history, your interests, your reasons for choosing particular colleges, and more. Having these answers prepared will help you come across positively. Better yet, prepare a high school resume so your recommender has something to refer to while writing the letter.
Ask the Right People
The colleges you’re applying to may have strict rules about who provides your letters of recommendation. Start off by researching this so you don’t ask the wrong people.
You want someone who knows you well and has taught you recently; don’t ask teachers from your freshman or sophomore year unless there are extenuating circumstances and they still know you well and are very familiar with your recent work.
For more in-depth information on how to figure out who to ask, see our recent article that details a five-step plan.