How To Get The Best Recommendation Letters

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Whether you’re a transfer student like me, or you’re going to college for the first time, you’ve probably heard someone mention “letters of recommendation” or something along those lines. Letters of recommendation are that element of your application that let prospective universities learn about you through someone else’s eyes. 

After all, you can only say “hey, I’m great, let me into your university” so many times before your credibility starts to come into question. This is especially so if, like me, you like to fluff and really create a forest of words. 

Having someone who will shed light on your personality and accomplishments from an external standpoint is an asset. If a letter of recommendation is optional, I urge you to submit one. 

You have nothing to lose, but rather stand to gain so much more. These next five steps should get you the recommendation letter of your dreams.

Assemble a List of Potential Professors/Teachers

Technically speaking, your recommendation can be written by anyone—if who it has to be written by isn’t specified. Unless your application specifically states that a recommendation must come from your teacher or professor, you can literally ask James the mail man, Corinne the nanny, or even Gerald the gardener. 

The key to picking someone to write your recommendation is to hone in on someone who knows you well. This person should also have a strong command of the English language. 

After all, a poorly written recommendation won’t wow an admissions committee by any stretch of the imagination.

The reason I recommend getting a Teacher/ Professor to write your recommendation is because they have a unique view into your life. They get to see how you perform on both the academic and social level. 

When I was transferring, I picked a professor who had taught me three classes (that I had excelled in) and was also the advisor of the student organization that I was president of (the International Students Association). 

I had attended most of his office hours over the past two years and he eventually became my personal mentor. His recommendation was my cornerstone recommendation. The one I relied on the most.

Another person I got a recommendation from was the head of the biology department at my university. I got along well with her and being that she was the head of the department for my major, I knew that she would have a lot of leverage. 

Make sure you have at least three people in mind that you know will give you good recommendations. The third person I chose was the parent of one of my close friends. He is a neuroscientist (the field I want to go into) and being that I was often at his house with my friend, he got to know me and was able to write a wonderful recommendation for me too.

Set Up a Meeting

Once you’ve assembled your small list, call or email your potential recommenders to set up a meeting. Asking for a recommendation is always best done in person. This is just good manners and will probably secure you a “yes” more than anything else.

A “please write a recommendation for me” email can easily get lost in the email of your recommender. What won’t get lost is the sight of you sitting across from them asking (ever so sweetly and earnestly) for a letter of recommendation.

Office hours are ideal for recommenders who work on campus, but be sure to let them give you a meeting time according to their availability. 

It’s never nice to impose, no matter how much of a time crunch you’re on. That’s why it’s important not to ask for recommendations at the very last minute. If they’re rushed, chances are, they might not be too thorough. 

Give Them Context

Once you arrive at your meeting, be sure to exchange a few pleasantries before getting right to the point. You don’t want to waste their valuable time, and you want to make sure they know how serious you are about the matter. 

There are a few things you should bring with you. With you, you should have:

1. Your resume – jobs you’ve held, awards/recognition you’ve received (make sure it’s up to date!)

2. A list of your extracurricular activities – on campus and off (this part, if applicable, can be included in your resume)

3. A bulleted list of things they could mention in the letter – jog their memories, give them ideas of how to best sell your strengths as well as your weaknesses.

Bring the three things above as hard copies, but also send them as attachments in an email in case they are misplaced or left at the office. Your recommender might want to be able to access them at a different location. 

If the university you're applying to requires a recommendation form to be filled out by your recommender, be sure to print it out and bring it to the meeting as well. 

Don’t forget to ask them if they have any questions as of the present, and if they decline, let them know that they can contact you at any time in the near future to fill in gaps. 

Give Them Time

Now comes the wait. Make sure that you give your recommender enough time to go through the materials that you provided and to write out a thoughtful recommendation letter. 

I would say give them about 3 weeks to a month with your recommendation letter. I know this means that you’ll have to wait for quite a while, but think of this as an exercise in patience. 

Use this time to make sure all the other aspects of your application are in order. Try to avoid checking in constantly on their progress. 

To know that you’ll get your letter when you need it, give them a deadline and check in about 3-5 days before the deadline you gave. If the recommendation is supposed to be submitted on an online website like Common App, you can check yourself whether your recommender submitted their letter. 

Otherwise, you can ask them on the day you had agreed upon. 

A Thank You Gift

Once your recommendation has been submitted, consider giving your recommender a gift. Careful thought went into making you look like an ideal individual to admit.  

Depending on how your wallet is set up, you can choose to get something a little expensive or more cost effective. Think along the lines of some chocolates, a nice pen, or even a globe like this one I got one of my recommenders. Shy away from gifts that are too flashy lest they be confused as bribes. 

I hope these tips get you the recommendation you desire!  

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