References, recommendations, referrals, personal testimonials…the names are different but the purpose is the same – someone besides you provides insight into your character. Almost every college requires at least one, some schools require many, most require two.
Two goals for reference letters:
1. Get your references submitted so your application is complete and you can get admitted.
2. Get your reference letter to stand out (because most don’t).
Here are some things you should know about letters of recommendation from an institution’s perspective:
- They all say nice things. You wouldn’t ask a teacher that doesn’t like you or thinks you are a lazy student to write your recommendation, right? So, honestly, your letter probably isn’t much different than anyone else’s. Basic summary of most letters: good student, involved in stuff.
- (But) we are hoping for something that stands out, that’s interesting about you that we won’t find out in your application.
- We are also looking for red flags. Letters that reference negative traits are alarming to admissions application readers (because they so rarely happen).
- Letters without specific examples are boring to read. Basically they say “there is nothing special about this student.”
So, how do your get your letter sent promptly and with details that make you stand out?
Give your references a “cheat sheet” or resume. If the recommendation writer doesn’t
have to work as hard to think up things to write – your reference letter will get written quicker. Help them out with some details:
- Your academic stats: GPA, test scores, rank in class, etc. Also, include: a list of higher level (honors/AP/IB) classes you’ve taken. **If something specific happened in the class you had with a teacher reference – REMIND them, by noting it on the cheat sheet you give them.
- Your activities and the duration you’ve been involved in them as well as any leadership roles you’ve held. Don’t forget to include things you are involved in outside of schools (everything from church activities to babysitting)
- Include some information about your family (parents’ marital status, siblings, etc). If recommendation letters references your family, we assume the writers really do know the students they are writing about on a personal level.
- Personal character notes. Are you creative, analytical, engaging, funny? If you think there are character traits that are easy to write about – note them – again, make life easy for your reference.
- Dreams and plans. What are you planning to study? What do you want to be when you grow up? What are you planning to be involved in while in college (music, athletics, sorority)? You want your reference to talk about you. Give them some good ideas of what to focus on that might not be covered in your application. Consider offering why you’d be a good writer or dentist or teacher or musician, not just that you want to be one.
For each letter you ask to be written provide:
1. Your reference resume.
2. A stamped envelope or email address to send the letter.
3. A stamped postcard for the reference to send to you once they have completed and sent the letter of recommendation. So, in the example provided, Mr. Smith is writing the letter of reference. I would ask him to write the date he sends the reference on the postcard and then mail the postcard to me.
ALWAYS write your reference a thank you note. Also, consider giving a $5 Starbucks (or similar) gift card. That way, you’ve left a good taste in their mouth in case you should need to ask again.
Overall the tips are: provide specific examples for your references, provide accountability in the form of a postcard, show appreciation.