By Tobias Joel
A good lawyer selects her witnesses carefully: she needs their testimony to confirm parts of her case. The same strategic thinking should be behind student choices for letters of recommendation. As in court, effective recommendations are critical because these are the only parts of an application not directly created by students. If letters of recommendation align with ideas expressed elsewhere in an application, a student’s case takes on real credibility. With the tips below, we explore three key factors for securing outstanding letters of recommendation.
Tip 1: Ask the Right People
The most obvious parameter is who should write it. Many schools do offer guidelines— “one teacher and one individual who knows you outside of school”—but it is up to students to select specific people. And students gravitate towards recommenders who can speak to student achievements, such as the instructor of a class they excelled in. Using recommendations to emphasize achievements is fair, but it may not be the most strategic choice overall.
Strategic letters of recommendation reiterate the overarching tone of an application. A student should begin by analyzing what that tone is: what is the general nature of my academic and personal journey? Am I a consistent student, moving forward with tenacity? Or am I a “late bloomer” (as per Harvard admission notes) who is just recently discovering my inspiration? Or am I rebounding from a setback, which tested and inspired me in new ways? Identifying the meta-narrative of your application is the first step in selecting recommenders. Strategic recommenders are those whose experience with you most reflects that narrative.
Meta-narrative is an important starting point not just for letters of recommendation, but also essays and extracurriculars. In fact, TTL Consultants begin their work with students by exploring relevant narratives, even as early as 9th grade. The narrative can and should change, but adds intentionality to decision making throughout high school. The result is a college application that shows consistent progress towards something.
Tip 2: Supporting Information
The reality is that you will not be the only student requesting letters of recommendation. This is a good reason to ask early (be prepared to discuss this during the first week of senior year). In addition to ample time, give recommenders supporting information. A short explanation of your goals in college will focus recommenders on topics that relate to your application. A resume, transcript, or even copy of a college essay gives recommenders more targeted understanding of your journey. Don’t assume that recommenders understand your complete portfolio; help them as much as possible to contextualize their knowledge of you within a broader story.
Tip 3: Sincerity
Verbally asking teachers for recommendations is actually the final step in a long process, a process that begins with actions instead of words. Letters of recommendation become exceptional when they describe valuable behavior over time. Humans change throughout life—and more so for young people in high school, whose personalities are naturally fluctuating. So showing consistently valuable conduct over the course of high school can differentiate a student from colleagues.
The most valuable conduct shown by students is not grades or test scores; the most valuable conduct is sincerity. When students try their best on everything and treat others respectfully, they exude sincerity. In truth, this takes more focus than grades because sincerity relies on personal awareness, not just academic study. This is why MIT openly states that an applicant’s “Character/personal qualities” are more important to admissions than any academic factor (http://web.mit.edu/ir/cds/2018/c.html). So when a recommender describes the value of student’s character, it can be more impactful than grades. In addition to the tips above, the best way to acquire excellent letters of recommendation is to earn them through admirable conduct.