The most challenging parts of the college application process seem to be the parts that make you feel most vulnerable. Providing copies of academic transcripts and basic information about yourself is one thing, but asking for and then submitting letters of recommendation that reveal details about your character is a completely different animal. It can be awkward to request the letters in the first place, but if you ask the right people in the right way, you’ll be on the right track.

Why Students Need Letters of Recommendation

Most colleges require that students submit letters of recommendation along with their personal essay and other application documents. The letters of recommendation essentially serve the same function as that of the personal essay – to help the admission officers get to know who you are and how you'll fit into their campus. While the personal essay often yields direct insight about who you are and what makes you tick, the letters of recommendation provide another layer of understanding by revealing the way that others see you and the ways in which you impact them.

How Do You Get a Letter of Recommendation?

Choosing who would be best suited to recommend you and then asking for the letter of recommendation can be daunting. This is especially so because the friends and family members you likely feel most comfortable asking for such a favor are not fair game. Close friends and family members don't make good candidates for writing your letter of recommendation because they're naturally too biased. Colleges want to hear from people who can objectively attest to your academic, professional and personal character. Teachers, counselors, coaches and employers are the people you want writing your letter of recommendation.

Once you've identified two or three people for your recommendation letters, ask them politely, in person and with ample time for them to fulfill your request without feeling rushed. The end of junior year or the beginning of your senior year are good times to ask for recommendation letters. Some teachers have limits on how many they will write and others will likely be inundated with requests later into senior year, so get your request in early for best results. Before you ask, prepare a list of the colleges you're applying to along with the application deadlines and a self-addressed, stamped envelope for each one. Provide this information to each person that you ask for a recommendation. This gesture will help ensure a timely response and will make things easier on the person who is doing you the favor. After the letters of recommendation have been written and gone out, don’t forget to send a handwritten thank you note to those people who helped you out.

Letter of Recommendation Format

The format for a letter of recommendation is like any average business letter, which includes the sender’s address, the date, the recipient’s name and address (if available), a salutation, body and closing. If you don’t know the exact name of the recipient, “To Whom It May Concern” would be appropriate. Use letterhead, if possible, because that will increase the letter’s sense of professionalism. The content of the letter should focus on describing the relationship between the letter’s author and its subject (you), offer specific examples of how they view your character and work ethic and provide useful anecdotes that highlight the traits described. Recommendation letters shouldn't exaggerate strengths. While it’s nice for someone to sing your praises, colleges are looking for genuine reflection and are typically skeptical of letters that sound like too much hype. The best recommendation letters are those that avoid ambiguous language and offer specific examples to support any praise given.

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