Everything you need to know about getting a winning recommendation for your college applications
Almost every college application these days requires at least one recommendation and it’s usually from a counselor who, depending on your high school size, may not even know you very well. It’s unfortunate for the counselor and for the student that this type of recommendation is needed in the application process because it often puts both parties at a disadvantage; yet only the student suffers from the less than personalized recommendation he or she gets.
Now before you think I’m going to be hating on counselors in this article, let me put your mind at ease. I would never want to be in their shoes during application season. They are usually outnumbered, sometimes as badly as 500-600 to 1 in the student to counselor ratio, and filling out student recommendation for college is just one of many things they’re responsible for on a daily basis. There’s just no way the typical high school counselor can give each student the personal attention they’d like and still cover all of the other bases their job requires.
But, before you get too discouraged that your counselor won’t be able to give you a good recommendation because they’re either overworked or unfamiliar with you personally (or both), let me give you some recommendations on how to get a good recommendation from your counselor and others. Knowing these strategies will help you help them work through the clutter and help you get the best, most glowing recommendations possible.
Resume review In episodes 7 and 8 of my Making College Affordable podcast, I taught you my pro-tips on how to design a remarkable resume and it’s time to revisit it again now that you’re ready to ask for recommendations. Some high schools ask students to complete a survey or profile detailing all of the activities and awards they’ve won during high school and answer questions about what their interests, abilities and values are. All of that info goes to the counselor so he or she can get a feel for who each student is and what they’re involved in outside of the classroom.
Fortunately, a good bit of the information you’ll need to complete a form like this is listed on your resume. Having one ready can save you time and help you give the counselors more of what they need to complete your recommendation quickly. Whenever possible, include a copy of your resume with the survey so they can see the extra effort you’ve made to stand out from your peers. And in situations where there is no survey to complete, and maybe even in situations where your counselor already knows you pretty well, handing them a polished copy of your resume still makes a positive impression that will certainly help create a good vibe in their minds. That can’t hurt you, and since you’ve built it for the colleges already, it doesn’t require any extra work on your part either.
Commanding the Common Data Set Let me take you back to an article I wrote on something very few people know about – The Common Data Set. I won’t go into any detail about it here since you can read about it on your own later, but here’s why knowing about it is helpful with your recommendations.
Counselors and other recommenders, like teachers for example, get asked to submit recommendations all the time year after year. They have a variety of “template”- like phrases and lines they go to regularly for different kinds of students as needed, but while they can help that recommender process recommendations faster, you want to encourage your recommenders to “break the script” and write you a personalized recommendation.
Knowing what each college wants in an ideal applicant gives you the insight to approach your recommenders and ask them if they will mention any specific instances where they’ve seen you demonstrate the traits your colleges desire most.
Think about it – if your top colleges value strong character, leadership experience and a good academic track record, having your recommendation go from, “Elizabeth is a strong student and a great fit for your university” to “Elizabeth has always demonstrated a good work ethic, a positive attitude, a desire to lead and help others, and consistent excellence in everything she has done, both in her classes and in her activities outside of school” would help, right? Letting your recommenders know what your colleges are looking for gives them an opportunity to highlight those areas – and thereby give you an advantage that will help you stand out with your recommendations.
Your counselor isn’t alone So far I’ve only talked about your high school counselor. If anybody is required to submit a recommendation on your behalf, it’s probably going to have to be a counselor. But counselors aren’t the only ones who can submit recommendations. Here are a few other people you might want to consider when thinking of recommenders.
Teachers can make good recommenders and they don’t have to necessarily be the ones who taught classes where the students got the highest grades. In situations where the student had some challenges to overcome and managed to work through them, they have earned the respect of that teacher. And that person can now make a good recommendation and speak to different aspects of that student’s character and potential for success in college.
Other people at the school can make for good recommenders too. If you’re involved in sports, ask your coach for a recommendation. If you’re in debate or involved in music or drama, ask your coaches or directors for recommendations too. If you know the principal or other faculty leaders at your school, ask them for recommendations. All of these people see you often and know you well. They also want to help, so don’t be afraid to ask them for it.
Students spend a lot of time at school, but there are other people who can be a strong voice for them outside of school too. Coaches, bosses, leaders of organizations where they volunteer, people at church, and influential people within your community who know your family can all be great recommenders. Don’t only select people with titles, but do try to find people with prestigious titles wherever you can, as long as their position makes sense in the context of your overall application. For example, having a college buddy of your parents who happens to be the mayor of a town 100 miles away write you a recommendation probably doesn’t carry as much weight as having the president of your local bank where your family has been forever, and where you opened your first savings account when you got your first job, speak highly of you.
Vary your recommenders based on who knows you from different angles and activities you’ve been involved in through the years. And ALWAYS give them a copy of your updated resume so they can see how accomplished you are in the other areas of your life they may not be as familiar with – just like you did with your counselor, right?
Max out whenever possible Some colleges only want one, maybe two, recommendations, but others will require some and still accept more. Make sure you have your required recommenders handled, but look to see if you can add others too. The more the merrier – and the more momentum you get by having more than what is required.
Successful people do more than what is required, and taking this extra step demonstrates that. Your efforts are also enhanced by the tailored approach you took asking your recommenders to address specific areas of your character and experiences, so not only do you have more recommendations than others, the quality of each recommendation is better too. How can anyone at the college not love that!
Not all deadlines are created equally You will find posted deadlines on your college’s applications and they are important, so abide by them. In fact, for our private clients, we try to stay at least two weeks ahead of any real deadline so they aren’t so stressed and so that the people who will be receiving their applications aren’t so stressed either. But always remember, those deadlines are your deadlines. They ARE NOT your recommenders’ deadlines.
Usually, colleges give recommenders a little longer to get everything into them, like maybe a week or two after the student’s deadline has passed. You want to identify your recommenders early and ask them for a recommendation early, but if for some reason they procrastinate, you can still be okay with the colleges. It’s hard to track when recommenders send in your recommendations, so here’s what we advise our private clients to do to stay in the loop.
When you ask the recommender for their recommendation, write out the instructions they will need to follow and at the end mention that you’d appreciate it if they would text or email you when they have submitted everything so you can make sure the college got it. Taking this approach does two things.
1. It puts a little bit of accountability on the person recommending you to actually follow through with your recommendation. There have been numerous articles written over the years about the abundance of counselors who never sending in students’ recommendations. Individuals can also mean well but forget to follow through with their recommendations too. Having them be aware that you are waiting to hear from them when they are finished puts them on the line a little bit more to do what they said they would do for you.
2. The other reason you want them to contact you when they have submitted everything is so you can “make sure your college received everything.” You may or may not be able to tell for sure if the colleges receive your recommendations, but if people send them for you, most of the time the college will receive it.
What’s more important with this step is the prompt it gives you to write a personalized, handwritten thank you note to the person who just recommended you. I didn’t say text or email them. Write them a heartfelt, handwritten thank you card and put it in the mail. See, there are these little sticky things called stamps that go on the envelope. You can find them for sale at the post office. And yes, people still do appreciate getting cards in the mail.
Don’t leave this part out. It’s important! Finishing the process with this personal touch is a classy move and it just reaffirms how worthy you were of the recommendation they made on your behalf.
Finishing well Getting great recommendations can help give you the upper hand against the competition when it comes to getting into the colleges of your dreams. Follow the steps I’ve given you here and you’ll be ahead of the pack for sure.
But, also remember the process doesn’t stop here. Your counselor will still be sending in mid-year reports with grades and any other comments they have about you after the fall semester ends. He or she will also be sending a report with all final grades and any comments they feel the college should know at the end of the school year. Finish well and do whatever you can to continually improve your reputation leading up to graduation and beyond.
And here’s one more thing that’s worth mentioning. People like closure on things. So, when you hear back from the colleges where people recommended you, let them know an update. Thank them again for recommending you and let them know what your final decision is on where you plan to attend. Having them feel like they played a part in your success is rewarding and a smart move on your part too.
Good luck with your recommendation and with your applications. Get them in early and make them look good! And as always, let us know if we can help in any way.