How to Garner a Great College Recommendation

My parents have always wanted the best for me. They wanted me to take advantage of every opportunity in life, hoping that one day I would be able to live a life far better than what they could provide.

You see, I grew up extremely poor. My parents are immigrants from Vietnam who arrived in the U.S. without any money, assets, or formal education beyond the 11th grade. Without financial resources and proper educational credentials, they found themselves supporting a household of three boys on minimum-wage work. They have always believed in the value of education, especially the benefits derived from earning a college degree.

And yet, aside from their aspirations, they knew little of the college process and could do nothing to assist me (or my brothers) in navigating the terrain of college applications. While my friends had their (college-educated) parents or siblings to turn to for advice and guidance, I felt like I was at a complete disadvantage. Was I missing out on strategies to improve my chances for admission?

Oddly enough, my badminton coach became the “parent” I needed to see me through this process. During off-season practice, she sensed I was tense — and saw this tension manifest itself in my play... I was losing my touch! It wasn’t long before she understood that my stress was rooted in my constant anxiety about college admissions. Throughout the semester, she guided me through the admissions process and taught me that the best way to minimize stress was to be as prepared and organized as possible. What did this mean? It meant: gathering information on my selected schools and noting their deadlines and requirements; writing multiple drafts of my personal statement and asking others to review it for flow, structure and punctuation; and ensuring I had a collection of strong teacher recommendations. The last item is key.

Recommendations — required by hundreds of U.S. colleges and universities — offer admissions counselors insight to your character and potential for achievement, above and beyond your GPA and test scores. In some cases, they represent the deciding factor when your application is stacked against others from students with similar academic backgrounds and extracurriculars. Recommendations provide key details about your work ethic, interests, and personality. Do not assume that your school work is enough to secure an excellent recommendation; thoughtful planning and communication are key in garnering the strongest possible college recommendations.

To improve your odds of garnering great recommendations, take these steps:

  1. Identify two teachers who can speak to your academic potential and readiness for college. Whose classes have you both enjoyed and excelled in, and which teachers have you formed the closest bonds with?

  2. Request a meeting in the spring of your junior year (ideally) or early fall of your senior year with these teachers to discuss your college application plans.

  3. Come to the meeting prepared with a list of colleges and universities, a resume detailing your work and volunteer experience as well as extracurricular activities and hobbies. Your teachers will likely be impressed by your initiative and organization.

  4. After presenting yourself and your plan, ask your teachers if they are willing to submit an excellent recommendation on your behalf. It is typical for students to ask if teachers will provide them with a recommendation, assuming that it will be excellent. In actuality, this does not always happen. Why not eliminate the uncertainty and ask directly? If a teacher declines, thank him for his time, and identify another teacher who will speak on your behalf and make you shine. If he accepts, provide him with specific instructions and deadlines, required documents, and/or website links to make the process of writing and submitting the recommendation as seamless as possible. Understand that teachers sometimes decline because they've already received many requests. This is another reason to ask early, and to have backup options if your first choices aren't able to help.

  5. Upon completion of your applications, I suggest sending your teachers thank-you notes. Writing a recommendation takes time and dedication; more likely than not, teachers are writing many letters each year. A note of gratitude is always much appreciated.

It is never too early to think about the college application process and to cultivate meaningful relationships with your teachers. While these may turn out to be formative, it is important that recommendations come from teachers with whom you've worked in your junior year. If you also had them for earlier classes, all the better. Give all of your teachers many opportunities to observe your talents, interests, and unique personality. The more time they have with you, the stronger and the more unique their recommendations will be.

If you are feeling stressed — and more likely than not, you are— manage what you can by being prepared and organized and let everything beyond your control go.

Further Reading:

First Person in Your Family to Go to College? What You Should Know Before You Go

Is a Four-Year Degree Really Worth It?

Financial Aid 101: The Terms to Know

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