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What can I do to make sure I get the best letters of recommendation for my college applications?

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Once you’ve selected your recommenders and they have agreed, DO NOT take for granted that your counselor or teachers will do a good job on their own. Particularly at public schools, these people are simply overwhelmed by all they must do. Therefore, one of your jobs is to make their job easier.

Here are some ways you can do that:

  1. Ask Early! As soon as you arrive at school in the fall, stop by the counselor’s office and teachers’ rooms to say hello and ask them to complete the application form applicable to them. Be sure to smile and appropriately “make nice.” If the person says yes, then let him or her know how much you appreciate their willingness to write on your behalf and that you will be providing information that will make his or her job easier.
  2. Within the first couple weeks of fall semester, provide the counselor and teachers with:
    • Any informational materials they ask you to complete (e.g., a questionnaire, a copy of your transcript, application essays, etc.).
    • An up-to-date activities resume
    • Your college list, organized by application due dates. Be sure to note if you plan to apply early to any colleges. (By the way, ask the recommenders if they want you to explain why you are interested in each college, and be prepared to answer.)
    • As soon as it is available, make sure that you complete your portion (usually the top) of the respective counselor and teacher forms, either online or on hard copy.
  3. Make sure the information and materials you provide recommenders are neat and organized, and get everything to them on schedule, if not early.
  4. Some counselors and teachers prefer to complete hard copy recommendations. If that’s the case, make sure that you provide them with a stamped envelope, addressed to the college admissions office, for every college to which they will be sending a recommendation.
  5. Photocopy all materials you give to your recommenders.
  6. If you plan to apply early to colleges, check in with your recommenders sometime in November to make sure that they have sent in their forms. Then do so again once you have completed the rest of your applications.
  7. Be sure to thank the counselor and teachers for everything they have done for you during the application process. This is really important! Counselors and teachers are rarely thanked enough.

Admissions officers pay a lot of attention to recommendations, particularly if you are applying to very selective colleges or your grades and test scores are less than optimal. Many letters of recommendation end up being generic and clichéd. What you want is something that is unique to you, positive, and helps the readers “get” who you are as a student and person. You can do a lot to help yourself by making sure recommenders have the best, most complete information about you.

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Marjorie Hansen Shaevitz is author of adMISSION POSSIBLE: The “Dare to Be Yourself” Guide for Getting into the Best Colleges for You, and founder/director of, a free college admissions information and resources website. An award-winning author, speaker, and professional counselor, Hansen Shaevitz is a member of the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC), Associate Member of the Independent Educational Consultant’s Association (IECA) and a Unigo Expert Network columnist. She is a former member of Stanford University’s Parents’ Board and chair of the Advisory Council for Stanford’s Institute for Women & Gender. She spent twelve years as a trustee for La Jolla Country Day School. Hansen Shaevitz has a Master’s Degree in Counseling Psychology from Stanford University, was Orientation Officer at the East West Center, a member of the Dean of Students staff at Stanford, and directed the College Re-Entry Program at the University of California, San Diego.

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