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A Concrete Guide To Obtaining Strong Letters of Recommendation

Updated: Nov 30, 2023

Written by Evan Farnping, Brown University, College Contact Counselor


Asking for a letter of recommendation can be daunting. But don’t worry! After reading this, you’ll feel confident and equipped with all the tools needed to acquire outstanding letters of recommendation that will be useful for applying to universities, internships, and more.



The first step is to start as soon as possible. Avoid leaving this process until the last minute, as it can put unnecessary stress on the person who will write your letter of recommendation. Therefore, it’s best to reach out early to accommodate their busy schedules.


The next critical aspect is to understand who will be receiving the letter of recommendation and who is best suited to write it. Obviously, for most people, there will only be a few individuals who can write these letters of recommendation. Here are some general ideas:

  • Going to an engineering school? It’s probably best to try to get someone who can reflect on your abilities in topics related to engineering, like math.

  • Are you deeply involved with a sport and interested in continuing? Your coach would be a potential candidate.

  • Want a more broad reflection of who you are? Consider your guidance counselor and or your advisor.

  • Want to showcase your abilities as a hard worker? If you have worked, asking your boss or supervisor for a letter of recommendation could be good, especially if it is relevant to what you want to do, like your major for example.

  • A personal example: One of my letters of recommendation came from a professor who was my supervisor for an internship at a public university while I was still in high school.

A big note: your letter of recommendation should come from a professional and or a teacher. It should not come from a personal friend and or family member, as that introduces way too many biases.



To simplify this process, consider providing supporting materials, talking points, or even a ‘brag-sheet’ that highlights your key accomplishments and activities. For example, when I asked my calculus teacher for a letter of recommendation, I provided information about my extracurricular activities. This gave them additional context about my class performance, considering I was also managing these activities. Remember, the organization you are applying to most likely already knows about your grades, test scores, honors, extracurriculars, etc. The point of the letter of recommendation is to provide context that “humanizes” your application. Also, ensure you meet the criteria. For instance, some organizations, like universities, may require letters of recommendation from specific individuals, such as a guidance counselor or principal.


Now that you have identified candidates with a purpose, make sure that the recommendation will be strong. Obviously, you can’t directly control what they are going to say, but you should be able to feel that they will generate something positive. In some cases, as illustrated in the examples above, you may not have a strong positive relationship. In general, you should select someone that you have had a positive relationship with, has interacted with you within the last year, or at the very rough minimum, interacted with you 3 to 4 years ago for a decent time frame, like six months, but only pursue that avenue when it was something very important, or you don’t have many options. For whoever you choose, ensure that you feel confident that they can talk about your performance, such as your diligence and contributions to the class. Essentially, choose someone who can be specific about what you have done as a person and as well as a student.


At this point, you should have your top candidates and be ready to ask. You might be wondering, “how do I ask?” The first thing to understand is that 99% of the time, teachers, professors, bosses, supervisors, etc., have written letters of recommendation before and understand the importance of it. Therefore, being direct and honest is the best way to do it. To be more specific, try to ask in person. As with most important matters in life, it’s best to handle this face-to-face. Therefore, consider meeting with them after class, after practice, or whenever you know they will be free. This initial meeting should be brief, direct, and informative. For example, you could consider the following generalized outline:


“Hello, I was wondering if you could write me a letter of recommendation for (x-organization). I am (describe what you plan on doing/goals) and I believe you can provide some strong insights on my abilities in (whatever setting this conversation is happening, for example, a biochemistry class) which would be relevant for (x-organization).”



At this point, it’s crucial to provide specific details such as the deadline, any supplementary information like extracurricular activities, or a list of topics that the recommender should address. This is particularly important if the organization has requested certain topics to be covered in the letter of recommendation. Essentially, all vital logistical information should be clearly communicated.


It’s important to note that denial should be taken gracefully. On rare occasions, the person might decline your request. This is usually because they feel they may not be able to provide an accurate or strong recommendation. If this happens, don’t take offense or try to persuade them otherwise. Simply respect their decision and thank them for their time. However, this is highly unlikely if you’ve followed the previous steps correctly.


After your meeting, be sure to follow up. Try to obtain their contact information during the initial discussion so you can provide additional details, document the process, or send reminders. An email is often sufficient for this purpose. Ideally, send an email summarizing your discussion on the same day so they have a reference point. This is a good opportunity to reiterate deadlines, criteria, and any other relevant information.


Once you’ve done all this, you just need to wait. If you’ve been proactive and started this process early, give them about 1 to 2 weeks before sending a follow-up message if they haven’t completed the letter of recommendation in that time frame. They will likely try to complete it as soon as possible while the information is still fresh in their memory. However, be patient and avoid applying any unnecessary pressure. For instance, ask for the recommendation at least a month before the application deadline, or even earlier, to ensure they don’t feel rushed. A personal example is that I asked for letters of recommendation at the end of my junior year of high school when my achievements were still fresh in my teachers’ minds. Thus, they had the entire summer to work on the recommendation, which gave them plenty of time.



With all this said, and the letter of recommendation has been completed, it’s important to express your gratitude. This could take any form, but acknowledging their efforts on your behalf is crucial.


A quality letter of recommendation can often make or break your application,

so thank them for their time. Ideally, if you are accepted into the organization you’re

aiming for, remember to thank them again. Gratitude goes a long way.



One final note: be cautious about sending extra letters of recommendation. It’s usually best to stick to the minimum requirement, as reviewers of your application will likely already have plenty of information about you. However, if you strongly believe that a potential recommender can provide unique insights that will significantly strengthen your application, then by all means, go for it.



Summary

Do’s

  • Reach out early and give at least a few weeks before the deadline.

  • Identify recommenders that you have had a positive relationship with recently for at least a month that can reflect on you as a person in a specific way.

  • Ask for a letter of recommendation in person when possible, be direct, honest, and informative.

  • Try to mention certain things you want them to mention, like class participation and or whatever an application might require them to address.

  • Provide critical logistical information like deadlines, criteria, and supplementary information.

  • Always give thanks regardless of outcomes.


Don’ts

  • Last minute request, don’t ask when the deadline is soon, like less than a week.

  • Using family members or friends, as this introduces too many biases.

  • Being informal, try not to drop a text, and or be indifferent about it.

  • Be vague on what you want (don’t just say “write about me”).

  • Pressure the person by trying to convince them to write a recommendation for you when they don’t want to/feel best if they don’t.

  • Not giving thanks.


Hopefully, you found this helpful. If you want more in-depth help, email me at evanfarnpingconsults@gmail.com where you can book a session with me to talk about any aspects of the college application process, have me take a look at your essay, resume, what was covered here, and more.

I look forward to seeing you!


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