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How to Get College Recommendation Letters: Building Recommender Relationships

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We all know that a positive recommendation letter is an important part of a college application, but strong recommendations don’t come from just anywhere — they’re written by mentor figures who speak from experience when they write about your strengths, your weaknesses, and everything in between. While some students may already have certain teachers in mind, it’s still a good idea to have a loose game plan when dealing with all the potential recommenders in your life. In this blog post, we’ll teach you a couple of tips and tricks to keep in mind for setting relational foundations for recs and avoiding the worst case scenario: an eleventh-hour recommendation from someone who barely knows you.


1. Start early. 

It takes a while to get to know a person, and it’s hard for the recommender to write a convincing rec if he or she doesn’t really know you. This is why, for many students, freshman year and sophomore year teachers are often a knee-jerk choice for teacher recs, as they tend to know students the longest. In general, though, colleges prefer to see recommendation letters from teachers in your junior or senior year because the goal is to understand who you are as a student today.


However, if you do want to ask one of your earlier teachers, keep in mind that you should only do so if you’ve kept in touch regularly with them between the time you’ve been their student and the time you ask for a recommendation. Otherwise, the letter won’t reflect upon your most current self and will lose credibility. If you plan on asking mentor figures that you meet later in your high school career, give them enough time to really know and understand you. Introducing yourself and then asking for a rec a week later is rude and will usually result in a superficial rec if the recommender doesn’t flat-out say no.


2. Be an active participant.

This statement is a little vague on purpose – “active participant” in this sense doesn’t just mean class participation. It also means being active in conversations and with your everyday actions. Of course, participating in your favorite class or on your sports team automatically makes you more memorable to your teachers or coaches, and thus it’s is something you should definitely do to leave a good impression.


But in conversation, being an active participant means chatting people up when you get a chance, listening just as much as you speak, and asking into the other person’s side of the conversation (if it’s socially appropriate). Outside of conversation, this could mean volunteering yourself for a campus cleanup, or going to the optional review sessions your teacher offers. By taking positive actions and showing initiative, you automatically leave a more powerful impression on your potential recommenders and even some anecdotes for them to draw on when they write about you.


3. Details, details, details.

A little goes a long way when it comes to personal details. Has your coach talked about his newborn daughter? Ask how she’s doing during a water break. Is your conductor’s office plastered with pictures from his vacation in Europe? Ask him if he’s got any more.


This tip is especially useful for people you might not talk to on a regular basis (school counselors!). Remembering and asking into personal details that they’ve told you about before is a considerate gesture that shows that you care about who they are. Even though they’re supposed to write objective recommendations, counselors will definitely put in a better word for someone who shows that they care over someone who just asks for a recommendation and leaves.


4. Timing is everything.


This might seem obvious, but you should only interact with your recommenders when it’s socially acceptable. For instance, you wouldn’t want to tell an embarrassing story the very first time you meet someone — you typically want to wait until you’ve spent some time together. You also don’t want to ask about a teacher’s favorite band in the middle of one of her chemistry lectures.


As a rule of thumb, you typically want to stay away from interrupting people when you chat them up. If you take someone away from their work just to talk to them, it can leave a lasting scar on their perception of you regardless of how good it was before. Conversations during down times in review sessions, at the beginning and ends of classes, and after school are helpful in establishing your image without annoying your potential recommenders.


5. Self-presentation vs. self-disclosure.  

The road to understanding another person is full of hairpin turns. It might make sense (at first) to always show your best side to someone that will eventually write about your personality, but by doing so you risk being less relatable and less interesting. Just like how our favorite fictional characters have a good mix of strengths and flaws (and are usually not perfect), there should also be a balance between your self-presentation “ideal self” and your self-disclosure “true self” that you show to these potential recommenders.


An embarrassing childhood story, a pet peeve that you can’t stand, a guilty pleasure show you watch, or a ridiculous thing that only you find funny are not only good conversation points, but can also give recommenders a more comprehensive idea of the kind of person you are when used sparingly.


6. Put others first.

Sometimes, when students are trying to look good to one person, they forget about another key social metric: how they treat people who are not their intended target. A common piece of advice for people on a first date, for example, is to judge the date’s character by how he or she talks to the waiter. The same logic applies to your potential recommenders. If your conversation with your English teacher about skiing is leaving another student waiting to get help on his essay, it’s probably not a good idea to try and continue the conversation. If you find that you participate to the extent that you’re always the only one left talking in class, it’s wise to back off and let other students have a chance. Make sure that your efforts to leave a positive impression don’t bother innocent bystanders; after all, it’s the way you treat the people that you aren’t looking to impress that often says the most about your character.


7. Don’t overdo things!

This is the last (and most important) tip to remember when dealing with potential recommenders. Ultimately, the whole point of a recommendation letter is so that colleges can get an in-depth perspective of the kind of person you are. It adds humanity and character to a folder already jam-packed with too many numbers. So while these tips can help you build foundations, you shouldn’t ever rely on them to the point where you feel that you’re constantly unable to be yourself — ideally, they’re meant to be a starting point that you can use to further develop a strong mentor-mentee bond based around your own personality. Because in the end, it all comes down to how well your teacher can describe you not just as a student, but as a dynamic, whole person with your own set of unique idiosyncrasies. And if these recommenders don’t get to see your real personality, it becomes very, very hard for them to do that.


If you work at establishing these mentor-mentee relationships and give things enough time, you should be well on your way to asking for the actual recommendations come applications season. While that involves its own set of procedures and protocols, getting strong recommendations shouldn’t be hard as long as you know that the teachers you’re asking truly understand you, can relate to you, and are ready to help you succeed.


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Jeanette Si
Senior Blogger

Short Bio
Jeanette is a junior at Cornell University double majoring in Information Science and China and Asia-Pacific Studies. As someone who’s received a lot of help from mentors during her personal admissions process, she’s looking to give back now that her own admissions season is behind her. When she’s not writing, she can usually be found singing show tunes (terribly), playing MOBAs (passably), or quoting Jane Austen (expertly).