Applying to a college or graduate school is a long and tedious process which demands serious multitasking. Besides acing a standardized test like the SAT, GRE, GMAT, etc., you will need to work on application essays, a statement of purpose and recommendation letters. A solid recommendation letter can set your application apart from a thousand others. Just like the other components of the application process, you must have a plan in place for getting the best possible recommendation letters. Here are a few tips that should help you along the way:
Be organized and start early
More often than not, students are so busy preparing for tests and writing essays that they casually ignore the letters of recommendation (LORs). No one likes to be asked to write a letter of recommendation at the last minute! If you are hoping to put together a high quality application, you should avoid making that mistake. Begin by getting organized about procuring recommendation letters. Read through the application requirements of the colleges and universities and make notes about the number of recommendation letters required, the deadlines, letter formats, and any other specific guidelines. Subsequently, contact the guidance office of your high school and gather information about their policies. Some schools send the letter directly to colleges while others mail it to the student concerned to submit and still others, require them to be written online and submitted online. Alternatively, if you are applying to a graduate school, contact your professors or mentors personally for recommendation letters. To streamline things, compile all details about each college into separate folders.
Choose the right person to write your recommendations
Contrary to popular perception, the best LORs don't come from the most qualified teachers or your favorite teachers. Instead, they come from a teacher who understands your character and personality. Remember, a good LOR is meant to provide insight about you, your strengths and weaknesses, and demonstrate these through specific examples. Only a teacher who knows you well or has worked with you closely can write about you with conviction. Therefore, choose a teacher who has a rapport with you, who understands your ambitions, who has supported you through school and knows your many activities in which you are involved.
Irrespective of the number of LORs you need, you must get one letter from someone who teaches a core academic subject like math, science or a language. The other letters could be from your coach, your counselor or the leader of a youth group, etc.
Similarly, while applying to graduate schools, request LORs from professors who have supervised your research and are aware of your academic potential. Also, managers in previous jobs, colleagues you worked closely with that are impressed by you or professional mentors can also provide great recommendations. Some graduate programs, like business school, require professional recommendations.
Give enough time and information
For an LOR to impress a college jury, it must be original and not just a copy-paste version of a standard LOR. Quite obviously, it takes time and effort on the part of your teachers or recommenders to draft such a letter. You can make their task easier by giving them enough time and information. Once a someone agrees to write an LOR, give him or a her a folder with information about the college you are applying to, the courses you are interested in, application deadlines, and other details about the LOR. Additionally, include a copy of your statement of purpose and a resume of your academic and extra-curricular achievements. If you are an undergraduate student, provide a copy of your GPA records, any published research papers, completed projects, relevant work experience, etc. At the same time, have a heart-to-heart conversation about your true goals and expectations from college or the graduate program. Depending on these, your recommenders will include appropriate references and examples. Finally, give them at least a few weeks to finish the LOR.
Remind when necessary
Some people have a lot of work on their hands while others may be plain forgetful. Don't hesitate to remind them about your LOR if you receive no correspondence from their end. Remember that it's your future at stake and you will have to be proactive at some points. Having said as much, be extremely polite when inquiring about the progress of your LOR. Begin by thanking them for agreeing to write an LOR and then casually remind them of the deadline.
A note of gratitude goes a long way
Once you receive your LOR, thank your letter writers immediately by mailing a note of thanks or doing so in person. Even a small gift is a nice token of appreciation. This way, they will feel appreciated and you will come across as being mature and responsible.
Good luck with your college and graduate school applications!
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