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Letters of recommendation for college: who, how and when to ask

As your junior year of high school winds down, it may be dawning on you: college applications are right around the corner! This may be a stressful time since your college choice lays the groundwork for the next few years. You want to take your application process seriously, and do your best to get into your chosen schools.

That’s why we’re here to help you with one of the more overlooked parts of the college application process that actually has quite an impact: your letters of recommendation. A good recommendation letter helps the admissions office see you through the eyes of a person who thinks highly of you, and may be an important aspect in their acceptance decision.

Follow these simple guidelines and rest assured that your letters of recommendation will impress the admissions office at your college of choice:

Do your homework
You read that right: you have homework even before you get to college! Before you even think about letters of recommendation, make sure you carefully read your college application requirements. Check to see when the deadline is, how many essays are required, and if there are any additional items required for that school. Look to see if they have specific requirements about recommendation letters. Be especially careful to make sure you have all the deadlines straight; applications are often due before the letters.

When it’s time for the letters, some schools identify who they want letters from and what they want to see in each letter, but not all do.

Who to ask
If your prospective school doesn’t specify who should recommend you, who you ask for the recommendation is actually pretty important – colleges want to know you’re making the right decisions. Instincts may tell you to ask your close friends and family but that isn’t really what colleges want. Also, don’t make the mistake of asking someone you barely know even though they seem like they would be an impressive recommendation.

Instead, you may want to ask a teacher, coach, boss, or other mentor in your life who can speak to your shining abilities and personality. Make sure you’ve worked closely with the person(s) you choose so they can speak directly to your passion and dedication to work – and make sure they’ve actually witnessed the abilities you’re trying to convey. This is far more impressive than a recommendation from someone with a flashier title that you don’t know as well.

How and when to ask
After you’ve picked your person or persons who will write a letter of recommendation on your behalf, make sure you give them enough time to write the actual letter. As a rule of thumb, at least a month ahead of the due date is a reasonable amount of time. You want to make sure they aren’t forced to rush so the recommendation can be well thought-out and clear.

As for the point you want to get across? Don’t be afraid to tell them!
Spend some time with the writer to cover what the college wants included in the recommendation and information about the program you’re applying to. This way, they can be sure to speak to a related topic in the letter. Jog their memory about your class participation, excellent customer service on the job, challenges you overcame, or any other notes that would improve their endorsement of you. They’ll appreciate you remembering your work together and the additional writing direction.

Other tips
Now that you’ve chosen who is going to write your letter and what they will include, there are some other tips and tricks to neatly tie up the whole process. Make it as easy as possible for your references to send their letters to your potential school by providing them with addressed and stamped envelopes. Armed with this info, all they need to do is focus on writing the best letter possible. Also, you can renounce your right to view the recommendation letter on the application form – an admission officer might trust the merit of the letter more if you haven’t seen it.

After all is said and done, don’t forget to send an equally thoughtful thank you letter to your references. You want to make sure they know you appreciate their time and their kind words because it could be an important factor in your college acceptance.

Dana Fulton
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Dana Fulton

Social Media Content Manager at Wells Fargo
Creative professional with years of sales and marketing experience, specializing in segment-specific strategy and customer-centric communications. Skills include problem solving, collaboration, critical thinking, and clarifying the complex.
Dana Fulton
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