How to get great letters of recommendation

"Hey, Mr. W. Will you write a letter of recommendation for me?"

And, with that, most seniors check off that task on their to-do lists.

But it's not that easy. Many of you are learning virtually and have never even met your teachers in person. With the impersonalization of online learning, you haven't really made an impression on your teachers. You're doing well in their classes, but you've developed no rapport with them. You might shoot them an email with your resume attached, hoping that, with that additional context, your teachers will be good to go to write you that kick-butt letter of recommendation you need to get into Stanford or Princeton or Yale.

Many letters of recommendation will fall short. Your teachers—overworked and underpaid during a pandemic—will need to write dozens of letters of recommendation, and they'll often turn to your resume for inspiration. And so your letter of recommendation will look something like this:

Dear Admissions Committee:

It is my absolute pleasure to recommend [insert name here] for admission to your university. I have had the pleasure of teaching [name] in AP English Language, and she is among my best students.

[Name] is a delight to have in our Zoom classes. She is always attentive and cheerful, and turns in essays that clearly demonstrate that she has put a lot of time and attention into her assignments. She has an A not only in my class but across the board; she is one of our finest students here at [insert high school name here]. When she's not excelling in the classroom, she can be found playing saxophone in the school band, leading volunteer opportunities for the National Honors Society, and assembling business proposals for DECA. She tutors students in math, for which she has earned the Presidential Gold Service Award, and she even spent a summer at Brown University, where she studied psychology. She is an incredibly well-rounded young lady who would add so much to any institution, both inside and outside the classroom.

 

I wholeheartedly recommend [name] for admission to your university and hope to see her admitted come spring.

 

Sincerely,

[Teacher's name]

 

I have read so many of these letters in my admissions experience, and they tell us nearly nothing that we don't glean for ourselves in a student's list of extracurricular activities.

When you give your teacher your resume and say, "Can you write me a letter of rec? Kthxbye," your letter of recommendation often becomes "fine" or "forgettable".

Fine and forgettable don't get you into Harvard.

Choose your recommenders wisely

Most highly selective admissions offices are looking for two letters of recommendation, one from a teacher in a STEM field and another from a teacher in the humanities or social sciences. Ideally, those two teachers would be from junior year, but I know many of you lack good relationships with teachers who you've only known in an online setting. If your junior-year teachers would write poor letters of recommendation, consider a senior-year teacher who taught you in a previous grade, as well, or worked with you in some extracurricular activity. Another option is to ask a sophomore year teacher with whom you have an ongoing relationship (you are a TA in one of their classes or you work with them in an extracurricular activity, etc.). Beyond your teacher letters of recommendation, you'll also receive a letter of recommendation from your counselor. If you've had a prestigious internship, you can ask your advisor/professor if they're amenable to writing a letter of recommendation on your behalf, as many schools allow students to submit one or more optional letters. Other optional letters of recommendation can come from a boss or coach or mentor, but only add optional letters that will add value/insight beyond what you can share elsewhere in your application.

Think like your recommenders

Teachers don't just write a letter on your behalf—they also rate you on 16 characteristics that compare you to your peers. 

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How would your teachers rate you? 

Think about the teachers you plan to ask for recommendations. Have they witnessed your disciplined habits? Have they seen you bounce back from setbacks? How have you demonstrated concern for others within their classroom?

If any of these ratings are unimpressive, how can you change that impression? Can you ask a thought-provoking question in AP European History that contributes to the class discussion? Can you volunteer to lead a study group to help classmates who are struggling to understand the material? Can you come up with a really creative idea for your next class project? Can you attend their office hours?

And can you share insight with your teacher that they might not know—your favorite topic in class, a moment where you demonstrated initiative—by writing them a letter?

Fill in the blanks for your recommenders

Some teachers and counselors ask you to fill out a series of questions before they'll write you a letter of recommendation. I've seen this document called a "brag sheet" from time to time. Other teachers don't ask for anything at all.

Remember: don't hand them a resume and call it a day.

Fill in the blanks for your recommenders. 

Tell them why you like their class. Mention projects you liked, describe what you found fascinating about the subject or what you liked about the teacher's teaching style, and say something about yourself in the process. You might also want to incorporate your desired major and how it relates to this particular class.


Example: "I really loved AP English Literature because I have always been mesmerized by far-off lands in literature. More so than just being transported to a different world when reading [book 1] or [book 2], however, I loved being transported into different perspectives. Taking a step back from literature, in general I am mesmerized by people—how they think, why they act the way they do, what causes them to make certain decisions over others, and so on. That’s one of the reasons why I want to major in Sociology in college, for I crave as much knowledge about other people as possible. In AP English Literature, I satiated my thirst for all things related to sociology when I read [book], which gave me a glimpse into the inner workings of [group of people]. What I found so curious about the book, from a sociological standpoint, was _______. It really made me reflect upon my own circumstances and realize [something about myself]. Additionally, I really appreciated how you asked probing questions during class, such as [question] or [question]. Breaking out into small discussion groups to ruminate on those questions really showed me how much [something else about yourself or your perspective]."

If you are writing to your teacher, stick to topics related to them/their subject/how they know you. If your AP Biology teacher is also your track coach, you can talk about your work ethic on the track. But if your AP Biology isn't your track coach, avoid talking about track—unless you want to connect your love for biology and athletics to your desire to study kinesiology in college.

In the letter you send/questions you answer for your counselor, you can talk more about your extracurriculars (both at your school and beyond). Don't just list your extracurriculars—describe your impact on them (your leadership) or the activity's impact on you (the qualities/interests you developed). 

When writing to your counselor, also be reflective about your growth in high school, both in an academic sense but also related to your personality, maturity, or preparation for college. What changed? When was your character challenged? When did you try new things?


Example: "I really developed my passion for music throughout high school. Before high school, I practiced the violin because my parents forced me to sit in a chair for 2 hours each night to play the same songs over and over again. That obligation nearly broke me; by 8th grade, I had become completely dispassionate about music. It wasn’t until my grandmother died during my freshman year that I realized the love I had for music. My violin was passed down to me from my grandmother’s father—his prized possession that he carried with him when he immigrated to the United States. Before my grandmother passed, she looked at me and said how proud she was of me for carrying on her father’s tradition. The next time I sat before my music stand, I looked at my violin with new eyes, and became determined to play the instrument with as much zeal as my great-grandfather must have. It made me realize that there are things in life that I might resent doing at first, but they must be done. And not only must they be done, but they shouldn’t be done begrudgingly; instead, I must deeply reflect on the value—not pain—these obligations might bring to my life, and relish each opportunity to grow my character and learn something new."
 

Think like admissions officers

A Williams College study of admissions data found that "recommendation letters with phrases such as 'the smartest kid I have taught in 30 years' or 'learns for the sake of learning' or 'goes above and beyond expectations' or 'drives the conversation in the classroom' or 'challenges peers to more deeply engage the material' commonly lead to a student being given the intellectual vitality tag. Of the 2,901 admitted students in the data set, 27% received the
intellectual vitality attribute... The intellectual vitality attribute is given to an applicant that demonstrates 'extraordinary academic depth / talent as usually revealed in the recommendations' or a student who
admissions officers believe will be 'a classroom catalyst who would have a significant impact in labs or class discussion.'"

You cannot manufacture being the smartest kid a teacher has taught in 30 years, but you can tell your teachers how you've more deeply engaged the material outside of the classroom, and you can demonstrate how you go above and beyond expectations.

MIT asks letter of recommenders to address whether or not "the student has demonstrated a willingness to take intellectual risks and go beyond the normal classroom experience." They go on to say, "We are only looking for glowing superlatives if they are backed up with examples and give us context; what is behind a student’s achievements. Above all else, make sure to go beyond a student’s grades and academic performance. We can get this
information from other parts of the application."

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UNPARALLELED INSIGHT

Alex graduated from Stanford University with a Bachelor of Science in Symbolic Systems, an interdisciplinary major spanning computer science, artificial intelligence, linguistics, philosophy, and more.

 

Alex was an Admissions Reader for Stanford University, where he evaluated hundreds of applications from the competitive Bay Area.

 

With a background as a software engineering manager, Alex is especially adept at identifying ways in which computer science and other STEM applicants can differentiate themselves in the admissions process.