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How To Get Great Letters Of Recommendation


Letters of a recommendation are an important part of college applications. Letters – typically from the school counselor as well as current/past teachers, coaches, mentors or employers – assess an applicant’s character, skills and abilities.

Why are letters of recommendation necessary?
Letters of recommendation provide admissions officers with a fuller picture of the student – as well as aspects of the applicant that cannot be ascertained from grades and test scores. Admissions officers are looking for perspective on the applicant’s performance compared to peers as well as a sense of how the applicant would contribute to their college campus or program.

What should be included in a letter of recommendation?
Letters of recommendation should contain information that is consistent with the applicant’s interests and goals as discussed in other parts of the application, including the essays. Consistency, however, does not mean repetition. Admission officers do not want read three different letters about the same activities and accolades over and over again. Instead, letters should expand upon something already highlighted or provide new information about a unique or exciting aspect of the student that would otherwise be overlooked. For this reason, it is helpful for students to get letters from writers who know them in different capacities. For example, one teacher may have had the student in all her math classes, while another recommendation could come from a teacher who had worked closely with the student on the debate team.

Regardless of who writes the letters, it is important that they contain specific examples, details and anecdotes to support the picture being painted of the student. In short, an effective letter of recommendation should address these questions:

• Who is the letter writer and what is her relationship to the applicant?
• What are the applicant’s strengths and achievements?
• How has the applicant overcome challenges and/or how has the applicant challenged herself?
• What sets the applicant apart from her peers?/What makes the applicant unique?
• How has the applicant made an impact/impression on the greater school community?
• What would the student bring to a college campus?

How many letters of recommendations should be submitted?
Colleges will specify the number of letters of recommendation required. Most selective colleges will require two to three letters of recommendation, including one from the school counselor and one to two other recommendations. Sometimes colleges will permit an additional letter of recommendation, but will often have specific guidelines about when an extra recommendation is appropriate and what it should contain. It is important to abide by guidelines and not disregard the limit on additional recommendations. If colleges do not specify a limit on the number of recommendations, applicants should be mindful of having too many recommendations, which can become repetitive and have the potential to adversely affect a student’s application.

Letters of recommendation are important in the college application process because they reflect or describe an applicant from different viewpoints and add to the overall profile of the student. An effective letter of recommendation should add to the college admissions officer’s picture of the applicant and allow the admissions committee to make a more informed – and, hopefully, positive – assessment of the candidate.

(Stephen has 10+ years of admissions experience at Cornell University and Princeton University. He is a founder of AcceptU, an admissions counseling group comprised entirely of former admissions officers from highly selective colleges and universities. For questions or to learn more about AcceptU, contact Stephen (stephen@acceptu.com, 617-424-0700) or visit www.AcceptU.com. )

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