Recommendation Letters: What They Are and How to Get Great Ones
Letters of recommendation are a common component of college applications. For undergraduate admissions, recommendation letters are usually less than a page long. They usually consist of commendations of your intelligence, work ethic, inquisitiveness, creativity, and special talents.
Some schools ask for three, some two, others just one letter (or none). A number of schools will receive over 50,000 applications every year, meaning admissions officers have to wade through tens of thousands of recommendation letters that repeat platitudes about how student X is so, so smart, so hard-working, so talented, so . . . you get the point.
Of course, you want your letter writers to sing your praises. But you don’t want your letters to sound just like all the others.
So, how do you get great letters of recommendation that stand out?
As the insightful people in MIT admissions explain, you need letters that are both “specific and storied.”
When they say specific, they mean detailed—your letters need to show at least as much as they tell. In other words, you need letters that not only state how brilliant, hard-working, or creative you are but also present concrete examples or facts the prove that brilliance, work ethic, or creativity. For your letter writers’ claims about you to be convincing, they need to be backed up with evidence.
Along the same lines, the best letters are “storied.” That is, letters should tell a story of growth or achievement. They should trace a progression from a beginning to a destination. They should demonstrate that the progression of your high school chapter has prepared you to embark on one of the most important chapters in your entire life, your first as an adult.
Consider these two examples, both from MIT admissions:
1. Brian was in the top five in my class consistently. He is certainly motivated to study. His character and personality are admirable. Brian is an excellent student, hard worker and has above average reasoning ability.
2. As business manager for the paper and co-editor of the yearbook the past two years, Mary has done an outstanding job. She personally brought the town's business community from the view that the school newspaper was a charitable organization to the realization that the paper is a direct pipeline through which advertisers can reach students. She also took the initiative to set up the advertising rate schedule for the paper that produced enough revenue to expand coverage from a four-page paper, so that it is an eight-page and often twelve-page paper. Her work as photographer for both publications has been equally outstanding.
The first example is very short, but that is all the teacher wrote. It is clear the teacher either did not take this task very seriously or just did not know the student very well. The second is excerpted from a longer letter by a guidance counselor. The recommendation opens with a paragraph of praise for Mary’s determination and creativity and concludes with praise for her versatility and discipline.
For your recommendation letter writers’ claims about you to be convincing, they need to be backed up with evidence.
The first is certainly full of praise, too, but it tells without showing. This is apparent in the teacher’s use of “to be” verbs (“was,” “is,” “are,” “is,” and a “has” for a slight change of pace). All of these verbs tell the admissions committee that Brian is great, but they do not show the work, motivations, or desires that have made these attributes apparent. Without details and a story, the admissions committee is left wondering what any of these paeans to Brian really mean.
With facts and action verbs on her side, Mary emerges as a student who has clearly accomplished something significant and concrete. Her hard work is apparent in the miniature story detailed above: she “personally brought the town’s business community” from one view to another, and she “took the initiative to set up the advertising rate schedule,” which helped “produce enough revenue to expand” the paper. The verbs here document Mary’s development and the change that she brought to her school community.
So, to rephrase the question: how do you get a letter like the second, one that’s both “specific and storied”?
Ask the right people.
If you are applying to a school that asks for teacher recommendations, it’s best to ask teachers that you had classes with during your junior year. Why? Think back to where you were intellectually or socially as a freshman, or even as a sophomore. Chances are, that version of you isn’t the smartest, the most mature, or the most interesting. Colleges want to know who you are today, not who you were as a 14-year-old.
But they also are not so interested in hearing from people who do not know you very well. That means to steer clear of teachers you’ve only had briefly as a senior.
Your letters should come from teachers who have seen you at your best. That means opting for teachers who have witnessed you earn high grades in their classes. It also means asking teachers or counselors who have some knowledge of or connection to your extracurricular work.
Your letters of recommendation should come from teachers who have seen you at your best.
You should also opt for substance over surface. This will not apply to most high school students, but just in case: a letter from a major figure in your desired field of study, or a famous success in an adjacent field, or a celebrity who your uncle used to work with will mean nothing to admissions committees unless those letters are detailed and storied.
Admissions committees want information about you; they do not care about your associations with big names. So, always choose the letter from your not-so-famous teacher who can sing your praises with evidence—and who can place that evidence in a convincing or moving narrative—over the celebrity who can only write about you in vague, unconvincing terms.
Ask the right people, early.
Approach your recommenders at least a month before your letters are due, but ideally, even earlier than that—the very beginning of your senior year or the end of your junior year is ideal.
Your recommenders are busy. They are overwhelmed with obligations. Do not put them in a position that forces them to rush their letters. If you wait too long to ask some teachers to write on your behalf, they may not be able to. Or, perhaps even worse, they may be left to write one of those generic “Brian” letters for you. It is much easier to write “Brian is a great kid” than to explain why and how.
Writing a detailed and storied letter takes effort and thought. That means it will take your recommenders time. Make sure to give that to them.
And of course, be respectful. Do not presume your teachers will agree to write for you. Say something like, “I wanted to ask if you would be able to write a letter of recommendation on my behalf.” Your recommenders are doing you a favor. Show them humility and gratitude.
Ask the right people, early, and give them information about yourself.
This advice applies whether you know your recommenders very well or not.
Your recommenders have had many students. If they have been around for a while, they have had many terrific students. Even if you are one of their very best, and even if you are very near and dear to their hearts, it is unlikely that they will be able to readily recall a specific story about you in all its detail. Do that work for them.
No, that does not mean writing the letter for them (though it would not be the first time).
It means delivering information that will help them write their best letter. Earned an A on a project for a teacher? Bring them a copy of it to refresh that teacher’s memory. Involved in an important school project? Tell your teacher or counselor all about it. Know what you want to major in, what you want to do for a living, who you want to be when you grow up? Share this information with a potential recommender who knows you already, and who would enjoy learning even more.
And ask if there is anything that you could share that would help them write their letters, like a resume or an application essay.
Help your teachers steer the story they will write about you.
If there are any significant personal struggles that you feel comfortable sharing with your recommenders, please do. Some of the strongest letters of recommendation detail a student’s hard work in spite of difficult circumstances, be it a death or illness in the family, a divorce, or a financial burden. As MIT Admissions explains, “Comments about problems that a student has experienced will help us understand the context in which they have accomplished whatever they have achieved.” Admissions committees are impressed when students overcome adversities. Your recommenders can help illustrate how your personal experience has shaped who you are.
Good teachers desperately want to help their students. It is something like their sworn duty. Help them do exactly that—bring them concrete information that can help shape their letters. Help steer the story they will write about you. Most will thank you for it.
And if a teacher declines any extra information, that’s OK. At the very least, your offer will help you present yourself as diligent. The very gesture could paint you in a good light.
Stephen P. is a writer and teacher based in Los Angeles. He has taught literature and writing courses at several universities and has taught writing and reading at Elite Prep Los Angeles since 2010.