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Letters of recommendation usually fall under two categories – academic and non-academic. An academic letter of recommendation comes from either a teacher or counselor and paints a holistic picture of who you are in the classroom and the broader school community. Non-academic references tend to be less common, and come from members outside your school community such as a volunteering or internship supervisor.
Schools have varying requirements for the number of letters they require with one being typical for the UK, and upto three for selective US colleges. The specific anecdotes your recommender shares can speak volumes about your character, your potential, and accomplishments.
Besides college applications, keep in mind that you might also need recommendation letters for summer programs and internships. It’s very likely that letters of recommendation will play an even bigger role in the next admissions cycle, especially when some grades are pass/fail and test scores have been waived.
While you may be slightly nervous about not being able to view the contents of this key component of your application, do remember that you actually do have a lot of control over what your recommenders say about you. Here are some tips to make sure you secure a compelling letter.
1. Identify potential recommenders early
It goes without saying that you should choose someone who knows you well. To allow yourself enough time to cultivate strong relationships with your recommender, it’s always best to start early. Usually it is advised to have a teacher recommendation from a subject that the course you plan to study is related to (even if you just have a vague idea of what you would like to study). If you require more than one letter, it would be best to pick teachers that can highlight different strengths of yours.
2. Make a positive impression in the classroom
While our conventions for classrooms have certainly been overturned in the Covid-19 era, do make sure you remain attentive and participative in online classes. This does not necessarily mean talking as much as possible or showing that you have done your homework. Remember that a good recommendation letter should also speak to your personal qualities such as leadership, creativity and empathy. In order to highlight these other qualities you might, for instance, offer to help your classmates, volunteer to take on additional responsibilities or ask provocative questions that demonstrate deeper engagement with the content.
3. If possible, engage with your recommender outside the classroom
Naturally, a classroom setting does place certain restrictions on how you can interact with someone. Hence, in order to foster a deeper relationship with your recommender, do find ways to connect outside the classroom. Some suggestions include asking them to mentor you for additional activities such as competitions, approaching them for advice regarding college plans, or even inviting them to events you’re a part of.
4. Give your recommender enough notice
An ideal time to formally request for a letter would be at least 3-4 months before the application deadline. This not only gives them ample time to write a good letter, but also gives you enough leeway to seek others for backups in case your primary choice of recommender is unable to follow through. If they agree, be sure to send them an email thanking them again for agreeing to write a recommendation letter. You can also contact them periodically before the letter is due to remind them about the application due date (politely, of course).
5. Provide your recommender with enough information
When requesting for a recommendation letter, check if they’re willing to set up a time to chat about your college aspirations. During this conversation, be prepared to convincingly articulate your motivations for applying to the colleges you’ve chosen, the course you’re interested in and why you think they would be suited to write you a recommendation letter. Ideally, you should also put together a short document that highlights any notable interactions you’ve had with the recommender, accomplishments and activities you’ve engaged in over the years. Even if it’s someone who knows you really well, it would help jog their memory. Having a document to refer to will only make it easier for the recommender to think of anecdotes to use in their letters.