If you're a student getting ready for college, whether you're applying for undergrad or graduate school, and you're in the process of gathering all the documents that the college application requires, you've already learned that you'll need a great letter (or letters) of recommendation. While much of creating an effective, convincing letter of recommendation is in how it is worded, there are a few mistakes to avoid (on your end, as a student requesting the letters) if you want to make sure that you have the best possible chance of appearing "highly recommended" to admissions committees.
Mistake 1 — Picking just any teacher to write it
In most situations, college applications will ask for letters of recommendation from specific teachers or from your principal and/or school counselor. If you're given the option to submit letters of recommendation from anyone of your choice, be sure to choose a person with whom you've interacted on multiple occasions, and someone who has been in a position of authority (or leadership) rather than simply a peer (like your friend or sibling).
Some examples of great recommenders include:
- Your homeroom teacher
- Teachers you've had for subjects in which you've excelled
- Choir or band director
- Music/dance teachers
- Your pastor or youth leader
- The leader of a nonprofit you volunteer for
The point you want to keep in mind as you choose whom to ask is that it needs to be someone who knows you well and who wants to see you succeed. This usually means someone that you've interacted with on more than one or two occasions, or someone who has known you for many years. Getting a recommendation from a pastor or a spiritual leader who has watched you in various leadership functions within your place of worship would be a far preferable recommendation than one from a teacher who has known you, and the quality of work you produce, for only a few months.
One way to make sure you pick the right person is to meet with him or her briefly and ask if he or she has the time to write a great letter of recommendation for you. If you sense that he or she is too busy, or if he or she mentions something along the lines of "I have so many to write," consider asking someone else, especially if the person you already asked is not the best person to highlight details of your interactions with him or her.
Mistake 2 — Being shy if you're told to write it yourself
A common response many teachers or mentors have when asked by a student to write a recommendation letter is, "Why don't you just write it yourself and I'll sign it?"
If your first impulse is to dread this response, don't. It's actually the golden ticket, as far as recommendation letters go. You should be excited and up for the challenge, which is primarily to toot your own horn for a bit.
Mistake 3 — Leaving out specific examples
It's one thing to write in a recommendation letter that the recommended person is generous. It's something else entirely to tell of how he brought donuts to the study sessions whenever a person in his study group was celebrating a birthday, and how he was voted "most giving" for two years in a row in the school-wide vote for superlative categories. These specific examples serve as narrative proof of the qualities of the applicant, and they add a sense of legitimacy to the letter and to the relationship between the recommended and the recommender.
When you ask recommenders to write a college recommendation letter for you, ask them if they would also include specific examples of your interaction with them. If they have been writing letters of recommendation for a long time, they're likely already aware of the importance of adding specific examples when they write it. It never hurts to include this request just to make sure!
If the recommender has requested that you write the letter for him or her, be sure to add these specific examples into your writing. If you can't come up with any noteworthy examples, it never hurts to call up (or email) the recommender and ask if there are any specific encounters that come to mind that you can include in the letter of recommendation you are writing in his or her name.
Mistake 4 — Having spelling or grammar errors
Any letter, regardless of content, will lose its effectiveness if it contains glaring spelling or grammar mistakes. Professionals are expected to submit written communication with clear, correct usage and syntax, and letters of recommendation to colleges should be considered professional. Sloppy usage and grammatical errors seriously deflect from the message of the letter, and they can turn a glowing recommendation into one that has a negative effect on your chances of being accepted to the college. If you notice a grammar or spelling error on a letter of recommendation that was written for you, don't be embarrassed to point it out and request that the teacher gives you a corrected copy. Think of these letters as a sort of "first impression" the admissions committee gets of you—do everything possible to make sure they are correct ones!
Mistake 5 — Not giving your writer (or yourself) enough time to meet recommendation letter deadlines
The college application process is a whirlwind of activity and requires paying attention to deadlines to ensure that you meet them. Writing recommendation letters takes up a lot of time, particularly if the writer has been asked by several college applicants he or she knows to write one. That's why it's important to give your recommender as much time as possible to get a letter to you (or to the admissions committee at the school(s) you want to attend). You shouldn't expect to ask for the letter and get it within one day (or even a timeframe of a few days). A week or more is a good deadline to suggest to the person writing your recommendation letter.
The most important thing to remember is that in the college rush of application deadlines, giving your teachers or leaders adequate time to write and submit a letter is as much for you as for them. The more time they have to focus on writing a great letter for you, the better the letter will be. It's as simple as that.
Sample letter 1 — Focusing on applicant's character
Dear Admissions Committee:
It is with great pleasure that I write this letter of recommendation for [insert name here]. As a highly intelligent and capable student, she has demonstrated her ability to overcome tough academic and personal challenges and to succeed when others thought she would fail throughout her high school experience.
I have worked with [insert name here] in the capacity of both adviser and instructor, and in both cases I have found her to be pleasant, conscientious, and motivated to excel. If something was taught in class that she could not fully grasp, she immediately asked for resources she could access at home in order to understand the topic I was teaching through her own homework.
An incident I feel summarizes her character best was when her mother fell ill during her junior year and was unable to take care of [insert student name here] and her sisters fully. Instead of using this situation as an excuse, [insert student name] not only took care of her sisters in the role of a caretaker, but she also worked an afternoon job to help support the family during its financial struggles. I don't know how she managed this while simultaneously keeping up with her homework, but she did, and she didn't ask for any special treatment during the course of these events' taking place. All of her teachers were shocked at her level of maturity and responsibility — two traits not usually shared by other 16-year-olds in our student body.
I believe that [insert name here] has tremendous potential in her chosen field, and I look forward to seeing what she will accomplish, both during and after her undergraduate studies. If you have any questions or would like further information from me regarding my recommendation of [insert name here], please feel free to contact me at [insert phone number or e-mail address].
Your name here
Sample letter 2 — Focusing on applicant's academic achievements
Dear Admissions Committee:
It is with great pleasure that I write this letter of recommendation for [insert name here]. As a highly intelligent and capable student, she has demonstrated her ability to overcome tough academic challenges and to succeed when others thought she would fail throughout her high school experience.
I have worked with [insert name here] in the capacity of both adviser and instructor, and in both cases I have found her to be pleasant, conscientious, and motivated to excel. I taught her as a math instructor, and if something was taught in class that she could not fully grasp, she immediately asked for resources she could access at home in order to understand the topic I was teaching through her own homework.
An incident I feel summarizes her academic achievements best is when she was selected to be on our mathematics team and to compete in the national mathematics competitions that were held in New York City this past year in August. The team I took to the competition were all bright kids, but I felt that [insert student's name here] showed more potential than most in becoming a success in the STEM field due to her mathematics knowledge. During the competition, she was poised and energetic, and seemed to become a natural leader of the other team members, who looked to her for advice when a problem arose that they were unsure of.
I believe that [insert name here] has great potential in STEM, or any mathematics-related field, and I look forward to seeing what she will accomplish, both during and after her undergraduate studies. If you have any questions or would like further information from me regarding my recommendation of [insert name here], please feel free to contact me at [insert phone number or e-mail address].
Your name here