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Securing Letters of Recommendation

How to acquire letters of recommendationWhen preparing for college applications, most students understand the importance of taking the SAT or ACT, but many underestimate the value of obtaining quality letters of recommendation. Many college applications and most scholarship applications require anywhere from one to three such recommendations. Every college applicant meets the basic requirements for admission, so having strong letters of recommendation is crucial. You must show the admissions office or scholarship committee that you are the best candidate.

When figuring out who to approach for letters of recommendation, ask yourself what criteria is being evaluated. Some scholarships ask for specific evidence such as leadership skills or community service involvement. Make sure that your letter writers are able to adequately address the criteria.  For example, if leadership is mentioned as a desired trait on the application, consider asking your boss or a club sponsor at school to write your letter instead of your math teacher.  The math teacher may think very highly of you, but how much leadership do you exhibit in math class? Go to the source.

The best letters of recommendation come from individuals with whom you have a good relationship: teachers, coaches, club sponsors, volunteer coordinators, etc.  Choose adults with whom you have worked with closely or who can verify your skills. Many students make the mistake of choosing an honors teacher thinking that colleges want to know how academic they are, but transcripts and standardized test scores indicate academic success. Intangibles such as character and leadership are best addressed in a recommendation letter. Honors teachers get many requests from students for such letters, while coaches and club sponsors often do not. These individuals may have fewer letters to write and therefore be able to give your letter more attention and care.

Once you have decided whom to approach, ask them personally if they would be willing to write you a letter of recommendation. Be specific, tell them when you need the letter and to whom it should be addressed. Provide a copy of the scholarship application if there are specific criteria that need to be addressed in the letter. Also, provide the writer with a resume of your activities and awards.  This will make writing the letter much easier. Be sure to give your writers enough time to do a good job. Once the letter or letters have been sent, writing thank you notes is appropriate and shows the writer that you appreciate their time.

The letters that stand out address your individual strengths from a first-hand perspective. Letters that cite specific examples of qualities such as leadership or perseverance are the letters that admissions officers and selection committees notice. Leadership roles such as student government, newspaper or yearbook editor, and club officers provide multiple opportunities for you to show colleges that you are not only a good student but can lead others toward success. Having an adult who can attest to how you worked with others to achieve a common goal puts you ahead of the game.

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Kelly Short is a 20-year advocate of public education and has been happily teaching journalism and photography to high school student journalists. She, also, advised numerous award winning student publications during her career.


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