Back-to-School: How college-bound students should approach the letter of recommendation process

Submitted by Melvin and Stacy Mitchell

While your teen’s academic record is the most important component of his or her college application, there are a few things that can certainly help set him or her apart, including compelling recommendation letters. Your college-bound student should choose the right individuals to compose such a letter – ideally, those who can speak to his or her character, work ethic, academic abilities and best qualities – keeping in mind that an effective letter may do a great deal for the overall strength of his or her application package. Here are a few important tips for students when requesting these letters, as well as other things to keep in mind:

Follow the specific guidelines of each college. Each college to which your student applies will offer direction on what type of recommendation they want, so be sure your teen follows those rules. Does the college require two letters? Recommend one? Do they require letters of recommendation only for certain majors? Do they want the letter(s) to be from teachers your student has had as an upperclassman? Read the guidelines carefully and do what they ask.

Request letters from the appropriate people. Your student should request recommendation letters from those who know him or her well and can comment on his or her character, academic performance, attitude and more. If a college requests two letters, it’s a good idea to ask for letters from two individuals with whom your teen has worked in different capacities – the faculty advisor for student council (for which your student was a class representative) and an English teacher, for example. When deciding who to ask, have your teen consider these questions:

  • Who did I get to know best?
  • What teachers did I work with closely and respect most?
  • What teachers or other mentors have guided me through some of the ups and downs of high school and inspired me to work the hardest?
  • Do I have any past supervisors or bosses who can attest to my work ethic, ability to work well with others and drive?

Your student should avoid requesting a letter of recommendation from someone whom he or she does not know well. A generic recommendation may do more harm than good.

Give letter writers everything they need. Your teen should make the recommendation letter writing process easier for whomever he or she asks by giving plenty of notice.

There are several other things that the writer would likely appreciate, including:

  • Application deadline information.
  • Details or guidance from the college or university on what they expect in a letter of recommendation.
  • An addressed, stamped envelope that the letter writer can mail directly to the college admissions office.
  • Your student’s resume with accomplishments, extracurricular activities, leadership positions, honors and volunteer work.
  • Other helpful information, such as your teen’s favorite part of the class he or she took with the teacher and the reasons he or she is requesting a letter from this teacher.

Say thank you. Make sure your teen writes thank-you notes to the people who write letters of recommendation on his or her behalf. These people are taking time from their busy schedules to do so – and your teen may need to request letters from them again one day – so, it is important that your student shows professionalism and expresses his or her gratitude.

Strong letters of recommendation may give your teen’s college application the boost it needs by helping paint a picture of the kind of person and student he or she is – and his or her potential at college. Encourage your student to choose letter-writers carefully and follow all college guidelines in order to gain the best endorsements possible.

Mr. Melvin Mitchell and Ms. Stacy Mitchell are co-owners of Huntington Learning Center in Chester.

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