Elizabeth Renstrom for TIME
By Brian Witte / Varsity Tutors
November 30, 2015

Letters of recommendation can be a very powerful component of your college application. Your GPA and test scores are just numbers, and your essays are necessarily self-serving, but recommendations can show what others find admirable in you. Follow these tips to receive the best possible letters from your teachers and other mentors:

Identify potential recommenders

The ideal recommender is one who has personal experience with your recent successes (i.e. successes that have occurred within the last year or two). If your ideal recommender is a teacher, you do not need an A in his or her class, provided that you have worked hard to improve as a student. If you are not sure how a teacher views you, ask. Stay after class, or make an appointment to visit with him or her another time, and ask if he or she can write you a positive recommendation letter. Most people will be honest, or they will at least make an excuse about lacking the necessary time. Respect your teacher’s decision. A half-hearted or rushed letter is almost worse than no letter at all.

The “recent” stipulation in the above statement is also important. Unless you had an absolutely exceptional experience in their classes, you should only approach teachers from your past two years of school. Likewise, you should never ask for letters from teachers you have had prior to high school. Your performance in middle school is simply not relevant to college.

Ask for permission

Your recommendations should be enthusiastic. But even the best reference for you (say, a favorite teacher) may be put off if you simply assume that he or she will write you a letter. Before writing a teacher’s contact information on a form, and before bringing the recommendation information to him or her, approach each person individually. Simply ask, “Would you be willing and able to write a strong letter of recommendation by this due date?” Including the due date is important, as it allows your potential reference to better gauge his or her ability to help you. If he or she is not eager to provide you with a recommendation, you should find someone else.

Re-introduce yourself

Most teachers work with hundreds of students per year, which can make it difficult to remember each one. So—make an appointment to speak with your recommender, and be prepared to explain your goals and motivations. Plan to talk about the schools to which you are applying, the scholarships you hope to receive, and the importance of this letter of recommendation. This interview will provide your teacher with additional content for your reference.

Prepare an information packet

Before your meeting, prepare a packet of information that is all about you. Include any essays that you have prepared for your college applications, and personalize each packet with a short summary of your interactions with the recipient teacher. Include the name of the class(es) that you took, the dates of the class(es), any extracurricular interactions (such as debate team or coaching), and the grade(s) that you received. Highlight the due date for the letter of recommendation, as well as any special instructions, such as particular aspects of character that the letter is meant to address. Finally, provide stamped and pre-addressed envelopes for each letter that needs to be physically mailed. This last piece of advice is a small gesture, but for a teacher who may be writing letters for a dozen or more students, the time-saving measure will be deeply appreciated.

Prioritize

If you are working on multiple applications, try to match your strongest references to your top-choice schools. An example of a high-quality recommendation would be a coach who worked with you throughout all of high school, and who has watched you grow and improve. Another example would be a teacher who helped you to become a better writer, or who supervised you on a significant project. As wonderful as these references are, it is not fair (or effective) to ask them to write all the letters you will need, so do not expect to have just two or three recommenders.

Follow up

You should give your recommenders at least a month of lead time before your letter is due. Teachers have many competing demands on their time, so once you have delivered your information packet, send a polite reminder when two weeks remain before the deadline. In a worst-case scenario, this will give you a chance to ask a different person to complete the letter. More likely, however, a polite nudge is all your recommender needs. Following up is not rude. It is professional, and your teacher will probably thank you for the reminder. Finally, send a short thank you note after the reference is submitted.

Brian Witte is a professional tutor and contributing writer with Varsity Tutors, a live learning platform that connects students with personalized instruction to accelerate academic achievement. He earned his Bachelor of Science from the University of Washington and holds a Ph.D. from The Ohio State University.

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