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Getting great letters of recommendation for college

By Lee Bierer
Lee Bierer
Lee Bierer is an independent college adviser based in Charlotte.

At this time of the year most seniors are so caught up in their essays that many of them forget about another important component of their college application: the letter of recommendation.

College counselors advise students to ask teachers in the end of the junior year if they will be willing to write them a letter of recommendation. As some seniors are now finding out, popular teachers get booked and some procrastinators feel stranded.

Some teachers are understandably unsympathetic to the last-minute rush. One teacher shared this quote with her students – “Lack of planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part.” Ouch!

Here are some suggestions to make the process go more smoothly:

Select the right person. If a college allows just one letter of recommendation, make sure it’s from a core subject teacher and not your football coach. Colleges want to see how you performed in the classroom before they care about your commitment on the field. If a college allows more than one letter, asking a non-core teacher, club adviser, youth group director or employer is fine.

Make the recommender’s job as easy as possible. Be sure to prepare a resume or “brag sheet” that details your extracurricular and community service experiences, leadership roles, honors, awards and accomplishments. Teachers and other recommenders will appreciate having more information, and your letter of recommendation will be richer for your efforts.

Recognize that you’re asking for a favor. Teachers, coaches and advisers are not required to write letters of recommendation and they are not compensated for the extra time needed to write and review them. Be considerate of their time by being prepared. Put together a two-pocket folder with your resume on one side and a listing of the colleges and their deadlines on the other side. Give them at least two weeks, preferably a month, lead time.

Many high schools now utilize Naviance, a college counseling software product that streamlines the application process. If your school uses Naviance, the teachers will likely receive an email notifying them of your request and the list of schools where you’re applying, along with their deadlines.

Common Application also allows recommenders to be notified via email. When this all works, it greatly simplifies the process from the “old days” when students needed to provide recommenders with a stamped, addressed envelope for each college.

Last, show your appreciation. After your letters of recommendation have been submitted, send a personal note of thanks, a hard copy rather than an email. Update your recommenders once the acceptances come, and inform them of your final college choice. They really appreciate being kept in the loop.

Bierer is an independent college adviser based in Charlotte. Send questions to: lee@collegeadmissionsstrategies.com; www.collegeadmissionsstrategies.com
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