Sunday, January 16, 2011

Teacher recommendations

I had a question recently about lining up college recommendations from a student planning on applying next fall.

First, let me say, this is a GREAT time to be thinking about it. An even better time would have been last year.

Teacher recs can really serve to validate your record in the eyes of the university. Good grades and a long list of extracurriculars are the basics, but the icing on the cake is having an educator put your record in some sort of perspective. Having a teacher who knows you well tell the college that you are the most dedicated debator she's ever taught, or most compassionate student body president means a lot.

How do you get a rec that really stands out?

1. Plan for it early.
It's always best to get a recommendation from somone who has known you longer. If you have the option, try to stick to the same teacher for a few years in a row. Or, take their class and also join an extracurricular they chair. Build a personal relationship with a teacher you think may be helpful as a mentor.

2. Place more emphasis on the content than the title.
Focus on what your recommenders will say rather than who they are at the school. It's better to a have a wildly enthusiastic letter from an assistant teacher than a single paragraph from your high school principal. As a rule, people you've worked with closely for longer periods of time are more likely to have wonderful things to say about you.

3. Be honest with your recommenders.
Is there something you want mentioned? Let's say you got a poor Physics grade your junior year but made up for it by studying your butt off and getting a 5 on the AP Exam. Ask your Physics teacher to address the subject of your improvement and hard work in the recommendation.

4. Do your research.
Ask around, preferably early on. Find out which teachers tend to write good recommendations. If some teachers share the recommendations with students, that's a good thing to know as well.

Bottom line: don't go scrambling at the last minute. At the start of your junior year you should have a few ideas for people to ask, by the end of it, you should have a clear list.

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