Last week's column covered the basics of letters of recommendation:
Who should you ask for one What should they say that will really make a difference? Where do these letters go? What are the logistics involved in getting them to each of the schools where you'll be applying.
Today we're talking when, why and how: WHEN to ask, WHY letters of recommendation offer value to your college application, HOW you can prepare your recommender to write the best letter possible.
It is best to ask teachers in the spring of junior year if they are willing and able to write a letter on your behalf. If they say "yes," then ask them about their preferred timelines. Some teachers like to take care of the letters over the summer, and others want a true summer vacation. If you have colleges with early deadlines (Oct. 15 or Nov. 1), make sure you provide your recommenders with at least a month's time to write the letters.
Letters of recommendation and essays are the two most powerful subjective elements of a student's application. Think about it: If two students present similar statistics (grades and test scores) and colleges need to accept just one of the students, letters of recommendation can be the critical tipping factor. Colleges want to know how a student has contributed to the classroom, if they respectful of others' opinions, if they reach out to help their peers, if they leaders in class discussions and group projects, etc.
The more information you provide your recommender, the better the letter will be. I suggest that all students prepare an activity resume or a brag sheet that details the following items: extracurricular activities; community service involvement; leadership positions; honors, scholarships and awards; employment, internships and job shadowing experiences; and what you've done during your last three summers. Make sure you focus on your responsibilities and accomplishments in the resume so that teachers will be able to capture some of those details in their letters.
Be certain to waive your right to view recommendation letters on your application forms. Admissions officers will trust them more if you haven't seen them.
Send a confirmation email to your recommenders thanking them for agreeing to write your letter of recommendation and being specific about next steps.
Send thank you notes once you know the colleges have received the letters of recommendation.
Lee Shulman Bierer is an independent college adviser based in Charlotte, N.C. Visit her website College Admissions Strategies.
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