Your 1st Step to Higher Education™
Just when you thought the countless late nights you spent on your college applications were coming to a close - when you finally obtained your ideal SAT score after weeks of drilling, trimmed your admissions essays to perfection, and tweaked your activities list for the billionth time, you are hit with another crucial application task: soliciting great recommendation letters.
Why are Recommendation Letters Needed?
You think: Oh man - another sleepless week! Why do they even need references? Don’t they have gobs of information about me already from the rest of my application?
University admissions officers are not just trying to throw another application hurdle your way (although one could argue that some admissions committees are just a teeny bit sadistic). Recommendation letters do serve a very worthwhile purpose: They provide another, more objective perspective into your potential as a university student and future professional. Say you’ve claimed to be a hotshot student leader with exceptional cross-cultural, communication, and technical skills on your essay. Or, you said you were instrumental in your team’s Olympiad winning streak. Well, the admissions committee wants to know if your version of the truth or your perception of your own competencies is shared by the people around you.
Therefore, although the recommendation letters should not replicate every message and narrative you wrote in your essays, there should be some common themes that tie the entire application together. If you have branded yourself in your essay as a strong peer counselor and environmental activist, your recommendations should also highlight these points.
How Many Letters do I Need?
Colleges and universities differ in the number of letters, or number of outside perspectives about you as an applicant, they want to review. Most schools require you to submit at least one, sometimes even up to three, letters of reference. The specifications for exactly who should compose these documents depend on the particular program. In most cases, however, you’ll need a reference from your school counselor, who is somebody who can broadly address your academic and non-academic performance as well as your character. In Singapore, form teachers and year directors often write as the school counselor. Many universities also want to see one or two recommendations from teachers who have taught you in core academic subjects such as English, mathematics, science, language, or humanities. In addition to the academic reference, some schools encourage a non-academic referral from a coach, volunteer or work supervisor, etc. Finally, a small handful of schools request a letter from a peer.
Keep in mind, however, that some universities have their own specific recommendation letter formats, forms, and questions. As always, do your research to make your writers’ jobs easier
Who is a Good Recommendation Writer for Me?
The above information should help you narrow down the pool of potential writers, but also remember: The most important consideration for who should compose references is how well they know you. Many applicants are tempted to ask for recommendation letters from famous people with impressive titles or from alumni of their dream universities. Although well-written letters with specific examples showing off your competencies from such individuals can be a plus, generic recommendations signal a bright, red flag in admissions officers’ minds.
So who should you choose? Well, just the opposite. Find somebody who knows you so well in an academic or extracurricular capacity that they can provide multiple detailed instances of how you have built and displayed your unique skills. Consider approaching a teacher who has a solid idea of what universities are looking for in applicants and, if possible, has a flair for written expression. Finally, select a person who genuinely cares about your personal, academic, and career development, who is likely to spend significant effort and time to compose an outstanding letter for you.
How Can I Solicit a Better Recommendation?
Although you should not be penning down the recommendation letter yourself and simply having your teacher or counselor sign it, the way you prepare your writer can vastly impact the outcome.
Providing your writers with a succinct but informative packet regarding your applications and goals can go a long way. Perhaps you can sit down with your writers for 15 minutes each to discuss the recommendation letters and the written information you are providing them. Specifically, include in your info packet:
Both for your writers’ benefit as well as your own, ask for the recommendation letters well in advance – perhaps even a month before the due date. Planning in advance should help your writers produce well-thought-out and effective pieces. Humans being humans, though, it may also be effective to remind your writers of upcoming deadlines two weeks before the event.
What Does an Effective Letter Look Like?
A strong recommendation letter generally begins with an explanation of the writer’s capacity to compare you to peers and their relationship with you. For example, if your counselor has worked in education for fifteen years, he or she is most likely in a strong position to assess you in comparison to other university applicants. In terms of the writer’s relationship to you, include information on how long they have known you and in what roles (teacher, tutor, trip leader, etc.). If you’ve developed a more personal connection such as mentorship or friendship, then mention it.
Your referee should proceed by highlighting a few unique qualities about you. These qualities should not only distinguish you from peers, but also speak to what the particular university or program is looking for in applicants. For instance, if you are applying to New York University, a school set apart from others for its globalized curriculum and network, it makes good sense to highlight your intercultural experiences.
For each quality about you that your recommender selects, he or she should have a specific story or example to depict. For instance, if the quality selected is maintaining calm in stressful situations, perhaps your writer can narrate a particularly successful crisis management example you took leadership in.
It’s always important to add a touch of objectivity by comparing your performance to that of your peers. Perhaps you are the most talented creative writer or analytical thinker that your writer has encountered in his last five years. Such statements add some realism to the letter, inspiring admissions members to trust the writer more.
End the letter by looking forward to the future. How does your writer feel you will fare with your chosen career goals?
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