A substantial bribe. Just kidding. You should give your teacher recommenders something much more valuable for writing effective letters of recommendation: your input.
Sharing your ideas will assist your teacher in writing you an insightful and specific letter. This guide will discuss what materials you should produce, and why your "recommender's packet" can go a long way toward making your final letter outstanding.
To start, let’s review why recommendations are important to your application. If you understand what admissions officers look for, then you can make sure that your materials are useful and relevant. With this in mind, let's consider what purpose rec letters serve in the admission process.
Why Do Colleges Require Recommendation Letters?
Many four-year colleges require one or two recommendation letters from your teachers and school counselor. The main reason for this requirement is to get to know you better. Colleges aren’t just looking at your grades and SAT scores. They’re seeking to learn about you in a holistic sense - how you interact with your teachers and peers, how you approach the learning process, and what motivates and excites you, to give a few examples.
Teachers can speak to both your intellectual and personal qualities, as well as to the role you play in the classroom on a day to day basis. Simply having an enthusiastic recommendation shows that you made a positive impression and maintained a good relationship with your teachers. If you made a splash at high school, you’re likely to work well with your peers and professors at college and contribute on campus too.
Because of all the information and support they can communicate, recommendation letters play a very important role in the college application review process. Given their weight in the admissions decision, what makes some letters stand out while others blend into the background?
What Goes Into a Good Letter of Recommendation?
As I mentioned above, you should share your ideas and information with your teacher recommenders, who can refer to your packet when they sit down to write your letter. However, you want to make sure your materials are useful. Without knowing what makes some letters good and others bad, you’d have a hard time knowing what kind of info to share.
So, in a nutshell, a good letter of rec is insightful, personal, and enthusiastic. While your teacher should talk about your intellectual abilities and attitude towards learning, she should also speak to personal qualities, like empathy, creativity, or leadership skills.
Just as importantly, she should be specific and demonstrative. By this, I mean that she should describe particular instances where you demonstrated your strengths. In a sense, her anecdotes can prove that her descriptions of you are accurate.
On the flip side, a bad letter may sound lukewarm and generic. It may sidestep talking about your personal qualities and instead only list data, like grades and test scores. An ineffective letter would also be unspecific and lack examples, making it effectively impersonal, even vague.
Based on these elements of a good letter, you can put together a “recommender’s packet” that will be useful to your letter writers. You can provide the type of information - your academic interests and goals, your personal strengths and values, and memorable anecdotes from class - that your teacher can incorporate to make her letter stand out.
Generally, this recommenders' packet will be provided for you by your guidance office. If it’s not for some reason, you would still be well served to put it together yourself. Read on to learn more about what kind of info should go into this packet!
What Information Should You Provide for Your Recommenders?
Once you ask you teacher for a letter and she agrees, you should share the following materials:
- Practical information, like to what schools she should send her rec letter, how to submit, and your deadlines.
- What you plan to study at college (if you know).
- What strengths, passions, of qualities you would like her to highlight in her letter.
- Special projects or memories from class that were significant to you.
- Your resume.
- Your brag sheet (this document is especially important, which I’ll describe in more detail below).
The first few points on this list shouldn’t take too long to record, but other components, like your resume and brag sheet, may require 15 or more hours of work. Let’s break down each component in more detail so you know what it is, why it’s important, and how you can prepare.
Share the bare necessities, the simple bare necessities...
Practical Information - Where, What, and When
Perhaps it goes without saying that you have to give your recommenders the bare necessities: a list of colleges to which she should send her letter, instructions on how to submit, and, of course, your deadlines.
Some teachers may upload their letters to your school's online application, others to the Common Application, and still others to the e-docs software, Naviance. Let your teacher know what method she'll be using.
What You Need to Do
Ideally, you have your list of colleges and deadlines on hand when you make your request. If you’re asking especially early - maybe you’re asking your beloved 10th grade English teacher at the end of the year - then you can follow up with this information later.
Remember that your teacher may have many letters to write, along with everything else she’s up to - so write everything down. That way she can refer to this information when she sits down to write your letter.
Share all your deadlines, and send a reminder about a week before if you see that she hasn’t submitted her letter yet. Once she does submit, make sure to send a thank you note for her help in getting into college.
Once you've shared the essential info, think about your special skills and interests. Also, please never try this at home.
What Skills and Interests You’d Like Highlighted
Maybe you’re asking your English teacher because you plan to study creative writing, and you’d love her to speak to your writing abilities. Perhaps you’re asking your Physics teacher so she can talk about your innovative contributions to the Robotics Club she supervises.
Depending on your comfort level and relationship with your teacher, you wouldn’t be crossing a line if you explicitly stated what skills, qualities, or goals you’d like her to highlight in your letter.
As mentioned above, the most effective recommendation letters speak to your intellectual and personal qualities. By sharing your ideas, you could ensure that your teacher includes your academic and personal strengths.
What You Need to Do
I’m not suggesting that you tell your recommender how to write her letter. You could keep what you say short and sweet, something like, “I’d really love if you could include my skill / interest / talent in (fill in the blank here).”
Make sure that the skill, interest, or talent you mention is appropriate for a rec letter. A passion for a subject, insightful comments in class, or a willingness to take on special projects would be worth mentioning. Your daredevil balancing stunts in tall places may be less relevant.
This small amount of input could actually help provide your teacher with a theme around which to focus her letter.
Let your teacher know what you learned from her class.
What You Learned and Accomplished In Class
Similarly, you might remind your teacher about a memorable project you worked on or lesson that was especially meaningful from class. If you had any notable achievements or important moments, you could describe them to your teacher.
Since the best rec letters use specific examples, your input could be a useful reminder. Maybe you worked on a special research project or excelled in a debate. Perhaps reading A Brave New World changed your perspective on life. Maybe your teacher’s class helped you discover you want to be a World History major.
Whatever you took away from her class, it could be useful to share. Your input could help make her letter even more specific. If nothing else, your teacher will appreciate hearing that her class made an impact on your thinking.
What You Need to Do
Before requesting your recommendation, list out your reasons for asking this teacher. Think about any stand out projects or instances where you went beyond requirements. Consider times that you contributed to a discussion, or perhaps had a thought-provoking conversation you had with your teacher.
Write these moments down, and share them with your teacher when you make your request. As with above, you don't want to come off like you're writing the letter for your teacher.
You could say something short and to the point, like, “I learned a ton from your class and was hoping you could provide me with a recommendation for college. One of my favorite projects was…”
Since teacher recommendation letters provide a micro-view of you as a student - they got to know you on a day to day basis - they should include specifics from your class performance. Your teacher should have examples in mind, but it shouldn’t hurt for you to share your own memories too!
All students should include a resume in their recommender’s packet. Your teacher will mainly write about you in the context she knew you - as a student in her class. However, it’s also helpful for her to know what other responsibilities you balanced and what other activities you’re interested in, especially if they connect to her subject. For instance, maybe your Physics teacher will see that you pursued your passion for mechanical engineering for three years in Robotics Club.
As described above, your teacher shouldn’t repeat your whole resume and fill your letter with data. However, it is useful for them to have context and learn more about what you’ve been up to in high school. Your resume, therefore, is an essential document to give your recommenders to help them write your letter.
What You Need to Do
People style their resumes based on personal taste, but the best ones include certain key elements: a summary of skills, a list of activities and work experiences with brief descriptions, and any awards or achievements. You want to include your dates of involvement, and you may state an objective at the top.
You should check out some samples and choose the format that works best for your experiences. Apart from providing a resume, you should be prepared to talk about what you learned from your experiences, especially as any relate to your teacher’s class or your academic goals for college.
Even if your teacher doesn’t sit down to speak with you about it, you may provide these reflections in written form in your brag sheet. That way you can communicate not just what you did in high school, but what each experience meant to you.
Your Brag Sheet
Finally, we get to the brag sheet, perhaps the most significant part of your packet. Your guidance department should provide you with this document, and its questions may vary from school to school. Whatever version you use, it should include prompts that ask you to think about your experiences, identity, and goals.
Rather than giving quick, cliche answers, you should try to dig deep. Even if it feels vulnerable, being honest and revealing is the best way to communicate something real, important, and authentic. Ideally, your recommender already knows you well, but your brag sheet should help her get to know you even better.
Some prompts may include:
- Describe your family. How have your parents influenced you? What qualities of theirs do you admire?
- What three adjectives would you use to describe yourself? What adjectives would your teachers use? Your parents? Give specific examples or stories of a time you exemplified each one of these qualities.
- Discuss an academic interest or passion.
- Describe an involvement that’s had a significant impact on you.
- How do you spend your free time?
- What have you learned about yourself since the time you started high school? How have you changed or grown?
- Describe a significant challenge or obstacle you’ve had to overcome. How did you do so, and what did you learn from it?
- Describe an experience that changed your thinking or perspective on an issue.
Depending on your school, your brag sheet may be more or less thorough (or may not exist at all). If you feel you have more to share, you could add your own questions and answers. Besides adding more info, what else can you do to make your brag sheet as useful and telling as it can be?
What You Need to Do
As you can see, the questions on a brag sheet are quite personal. They’re tough to answer immediately. Instead, they call for some serious introspection and self-awareness. Don’t worry if your first reaction is to go blank. It takes some time to reflect on these questions and come up with answers that feel genuine and meaningful.
One way to dig deeper might be to sit with a question and jot down any ideas that come to mind. For instance, let’s say you’re trying to describe an involvement that’s important to you. You might write down your participation in track team. Then you should ask yourself a simple question: why?
Maybe track team has enhanced your confidence. Again, ask yourself, Why? Maybe you’re continuously breaking your personal records and showing yourself that you can redefine your sense of limitations.
You can keep asking yourself "why" to get to something that resonates with you - maybe your achievements in running have spread into other areas in your life by showing that if you endure discomfort in the moment, you can break through to a new level that you didn’t know was possible.
Then again, another student might value track team because of the friendships she made there. Maybe she felt a strong sense of belonging with her track team, and this connectedness showed her that she can adapt to any new social situation.
If you keep asking yourself why and defining your reasons, then your answer may look very different - and much more revealing - than where you started. Two students may write about their involvement in track, but they may value the experience for very different reasons. And this says something different about who they are and what's important to them.
Your brag sheet will help your teacher write an insightful letter that reveals your character, personality, and values. They may also include significant circumstances in your family or personal background, if you're comfortable sharing them. All of this insight will help admissions officers get to know you on a deeper level.
Your letters should give admissions committees a fuller sense of who you are as a student and person. By giving this same well-rounded sense to your teachers, you will give them all the materials they need - along with the relationship they’ve already established with you - to write a personal and effective letter of recommendation.
Key Points: What to Prepare and Why
The most important takeaway you should gain from this guide is that you can play an active and influential role in getting strong recommendation letters. Of course, the foundation of your letters is how you performed in class over the year and got to know your teachers. Beyond this, though, you can prepare thoughtful information that will help your teacher write a specific, personalized, and revealing letter.
Thinking about and producing your materials should take a few weeks of planning. You should expect to spend about 15 hours or more on creating and proofreading your resume and brag sheet.
You shouldn’t scribble off fast answers to your brag sheet prompts; instead, take the time to sit with these questions and dig deeply, continually challenging yourself to get to the root of your answers by asking, “Why?” as in the example above. Your responses will not only jog your teacher’s memory and teach her new things about you, but they will also show her how much effort and planning you’re putting into your college applications.
Hopefully, you’ve asked a teacher who supports you and knows you well. By putting in the effort to share your ideas, resume, and brag sheet, you can be confident you’ve done everything in your power to acquire an excellent letter of recommendation.
In addition to teacher recommendations, most colleges want to see an evaluation from your school counselor. To learn about how your counselor rec differs from your teacher recs, check out these examples of strong letters. For letters you don't want from your counselor, read these four examples.
You may be surprised to learn how much influence you can have on your recommendation letters. Along similar lines, you also want to be strategic about how you present your extracurricular activities on your college applications. Check out this full guide on how to write about extracurriculars in the most impressive way.
For more on the ins and outs of applying to college, check out this full step by step guide! It goes over everything from choosing your high school classes to brainstorming personal ideas. It's also available in snazzy infographic form!
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Rebecca graduated with her Master's in Adolescent Counseling from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She has years of teaching and college counseling experience and is passionate about helping students achieve their goals and improve their well-being. She graduated magna cum laude from Tufts University and scored in the 99th percentile on the SAT.