Ten Steps to Secure a Letter of Reference

Whether you’re applying to college or grad school, the purpose for letters of reference is to increase your chances of being admitted. A 2001 survey of college admissions officers by the National Association of College Admission Counseling showed that more than 60 percent considered recommendations from teachers and guidance counselors of “moderate or considerable importance.”

While you can’t dictate what a recommender writes, there are things you can do to help that person present your most compelling qualities with clarity. Following are crucial tips for securing letters that proclaim your personal best. (Hint: These suggestions are also useful when the time comes for you to write a recommendation.)

1. Decide who should back up your candidacy. Contrary to what most applicants believe, what your recommenders have to say about you is more important than who they are. A recommender’s status means next to nothing if the letter sounds shallow. Deans of schools look for authentic relationships between the applicant and the person writing the letter of reference.

2. Give advance notice. Approach your people of reference well before the letters are due, a month in advance is a good rule of thumb.

3. Explain your plans. Briefly explain to the person writing the reference your reasons for applying to college or grad school. If you haven’t seen your recommender in a while, provide your resume so that the person is aware of your accomplishments and activities. By sharing as much information as possible, you enable your recommender to write a convincing letter.

4. Recount a vignette. This may be the most important tip of all. Many letters contain flowery words and glowing language, but these comments often seem contrived. “This student is compassionate and responsible,” isn’t nearly as powerful as, “This student initiated a coat drive for the homeless.” The only problem is that your recommender may have forgotten specific situations that reveal who you are. With your recommender, recount together a vignette that highlights key traits that make you a valuable member of that person’s staff or community.

5. Consider writing skills. Your recommender may possess insights about you, but how well they express it in writing directly influences the quality of your recommendation. Although reviewers do not hold a recommender’s poor writing ability against the applicant, such errors can reduce the letter’s persuasiveness. Choose recommenders who can help your cause the most.

6. Make relevant connections. When possible, a letter of reference should connect an applicant’s abilities and experiences to the school’s academic focus. For instance, recommenders who are familiar with an applicant’s desire to attend law school could discuss the applicant’s passion for research.

7. Present different points of view. When choosing recommenders, pick people who can give compelling facts about you from different perspectives. For instance, a teacher would speak to your academic abilities while an employer would discuss your contributions on the job.

8. Reveal outside interests. Heavy involvement in an activity, even one unrelated to academic pursuits, can add depth to an applicant’s profile. Consider supplementing your application with an extra letter from an individual who knows you in that context. This person can speak to your dedication and reveal an otherwise unknown dimension of your personality.

9. Make copies of your letters. Always make xerox copies of your letters of reference in case someone in the school’s administration office misfiles or loses your letter, and you have to turn it in again. It’s happened.

10. Thank your recommenders. Write notes of appreciation to the people who provided reference letters for you. When you are admitted, be sure to let them know that their input made a difference.

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