The college admissions process has become increasingly competitive over the past decade or so. Whereas many schools were once considered “safety schools,” meaning pretty much anyone could get admitted, those schools have also become more selective as the number of college applications has skyrocketed. Much of this increase is due to each individual student applying to more schools, not just more students applying.

College admissions decisions are generally made on four bases:

  1. ACT/SAT Scores
  2. Grade Point Average
  3. Resume
  4. Recommendation Letters

Those students who are strong in all four areas generally have an easier time getting into the colleges of their choice. If a student is weak in one area, it’s highly advantageous to stand out in a different area. For example, someone with a low GPA might have a good chance getting admitted if his ACT score is a 33.

Today I want to write about the importance of the Recommendation Letter and how to obtain a difference-making one. For many students one exceptional letter can make up for a short-fall in another area. Many colleges require two letters of recommendation, with at least one of those coming from a teacher. No matter who you ask to write your letter, an effective letter will contain similar information.

The key characteristics of a standout letter are:

  • Comes from someone who knows the student in a unique way
  • Emphasizes the student’s personality rather than his accomplishments
  • Gives insight about the student not found anywhere else in the application
  • Is honest and not “fluffy”
  • Is no longer than one page

First and foremost, you should ask someone who knows you in a role beyond just a student. While it is often times required to have a teacher write you a letter, you can also ask someone who is not a teacher for an additional letter. Coaches, dance instructors, community service directors, church pastors, employers, etc. are all potential people to write you a letter. Keep in mind that you want an honest letter, so assume that the writer is going to tell the truth, both good and bad…so choose wisely!

If you need a teacher to write you a recommendation letter, then you should ask a teacher who knows you beyond the classroom; perhaps it is a teacher who you get extra tutoring from afterschool or a teacher who supervises you in an extracurricular activity.

It is vital that you talk with the person writing your letter to give them an idea of what you’d like them to focus on. It’s really easy for someone to list accomplishments in a letter, but that does not give colleges any additional information about you. You should tell the person you ask that you want them to focus on your personality, work ethic, time management, or some other aspect of your life that isn’t easily listed on a resume. Colleges want insight into who you are as a person, how you are going to fit in on campus, and what you are capable of.

When and how to ask someone to write a letter is also important!

When you figure out who to ask to write your letter, make sure to give them plenty of time. For college recommendation letters, I suggest that students ask by May 15 of their Junior year. That gives the person writing numerous weeks before summer break and ensures the student has the letter in hand over the summer to begin working on college applications. I’ve seen too many times a student ask for a recommendation from a teacher who is no longer at the school. In these cases it can be very difficult to track that teacher down.

When I write a letter I always give it back to the student in a sealed envelope. This is common practice, so don’t be surprised if that’s how you receive yours. Some colleges will require it sent directly from the recommender, but in most instances you will have a hard copy for your records. I leave it up to students if they want to open the sealed envelope or not. As I mentioned above, if the recommender becomes unavailable at some point, it is really valuable to have his or her letter on file so you don’t have to waste precious time trying to track it down.

Once someone write you a letter, always follow up with a Thank You note. Writing recommendation letters is not easy for most people since they don’t have a lot of practice. They take time and a lot of though, so show your appreciation with a note. If you want to go the extra mile you can throw in a $5 gift card to Starbuck’s or something like that. If you get a college acceptance or acceptance to another program, be sure to let the recommender know.

Because college admissions is becoming so competitive, many colleges are using recommendation letters to make final decisions. Having letters that count and make you stand out from the rest of the applicants may mean the difference between getting in and not getting in to the college of your choice. So start early, be thoughtful in your request, and follow up with your writer to ensure you have the best letter possible.