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 Getting Great Recommendations

A great teacher recommendation can add depth and excitement to your college application. But many recommendations end up sounding alike—especially to tired admission officers reading their 50th application of the day. To make your teacher recommendations stand out from the crowd of compliments, try these suggestions from the experts.

Choose Carefully

You got an "A" in Mrs. Smith's class—your favorite subject. You barely squeaked out a "B+" in Mr. Jones's class, and that was by working harder than you've ever worked in your life. Which teacher do you ask to write a recommendation?

Believe it or not, Mr. Jones could be the better choice. He can write about your determination to learn a subject that was difficult for you. If you had to ask Mr. Jones for extra help, he might know you better than Mrs. Smith does.

On the other hand, Mrs. Smith can attest to your natural aptitude for her subject. If her class is related to a college major you're interested in, or if you completed a significant project or paper for the class, she may be a good choice. (Of course, if you need more than one recommendation, ask both teachers.)

"Students should ask teachers from classes where they have been most engaged intellectually, and especially where they have done a special project requiring independent work, follow-through, and imagination," says a director of college counseling at San Francisco University High School (CA). "Just an A in the class is not noteworthy."

So don't choose teachers based on grades alone. Think about the work you did in their class(es), the relationship between you and the teacher, and how your experience in the class could fit with your college choices. If the teachers don't know you very well or the class wasn't very demanding, you'll end up with so-so recommendations.

"Find someone who really knows you, warts and all," says a college advisor at Albuquerque Academy (NM). "It is better to have a knowledgeable report that is balanced than an antiseptically clean but generic one."

Ask Early

Often, teachers are asked to write recommendations for a lot of their students. Ask your teachers about recommendations as early as possible. (How about right now? Go ahead, we'll wait.) You're more likely to get thoughtful, unique recommendations when yours is one of the first the teachers have written this year. By the 10th or 15th recommendation, teachers could end up running low on inspiration.

"The early recommendations often tend to be better (before teacher burnout occurs)," says a counselor at Community High School (MI) and director of college counseling for Jewish Academy of Metropolitan Detroit.

Nudge Their Memories

Some high school teachers may have more than a hundred students per year. Don't make them rack their brains trying to remember exactly what topic you chose for your research paper last semester.

When you give teachers your recommendation forms (and don't forget an addressed, stamped envelope!), include one or more following items:

  • Copies of papers you wrote for that teacher's class, with his or her comments written on them.
  • A list of which of the teacher's classes you've taken and when you took them.
  • A short (one page or less) summary of your academic achievements and activities.

Also, find time to talk to your teacher about your experience in his or her class and your dreams for college.

"The best thing to do is to tell the teacher what you got out of his or her class—how it changed your way of looking at the world."

If possible, relate that discussion to what you're looking for in a college. For example, perhaps what you enjoyed most about a particular class was the interesting classroom discussions. As a result, you decided to look for colleges that encourage a lot of interaction between the faculty and students.

"If you make clear to your teacher why you are applying to each college—how much each college matches your learning styles and objectives—and if you ask the teacher to cite examples of these in his or her class, you will have a recommendation that is much more helpful to the admission office," says the vice president for communications at Lafayette College (PA).

Also, if you asked your teachers weeks or months before the due date (you mean you haven't asked yet? What are you waiting for?), check on the progress of the recommendation a week or two before the due date. Don't be a pest: just ask politely if the teacher needs anything else to complete the recommendation and mention the due date.

Appreciate Their Effort

Teachers write recommendations because they care about their students—that's you! Write your teacher a thank-you note. If you want to be more creative, attach the note to a plate of homemade cookies. Too many students don't realize that writing recommendations is hard work for teachers. Make sure that your teachers know you appreciate their efforts!




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