College Corner: How to get powerful, personalized letters of recommendation

Published on Monday, 21 April 2014 20:54 - Written by Donna Spann, Guest Contributer

Every year, I work with students who wait until the last minute to ask a teacher or guidance counselor for a letter of recommendation. Sometimes, the student simply doesn’t think recommendations are that important. More often, it just gets pushed down the list of things to do.

But getting a great letter of recommendation can be very valuable, particularly for students whose test scores or grade point average are not as strong as they would like.

I’ve seen really positive letters help a student’s overall case for admission, by emphasizing a student’s personal qualities and strengths in a way that cut-and-dried statistics and grades just can’t.

Conversely, a weak, vague letter — or worse, one that contains negative comments — can undermine an otherwise strong application. Especially for students applying to competitive schools, every aspect of the admissions process counts.

So, for students getting ready to apply to college next fall, it’s not too early to start getting this process rolling. A good recommendation should highlight specific strengths and be written by a teacher who obviously knows you well. Here’s how to make sure yours helps your case.

Choose teachers strategically. Students often assume they should ask one of the teachers who taught their strongest subject. This may be true, especially if it’s directly related to your major. However, the best letters are written by teachers who know you especially well, or those with whom you formed a special bond. This might be a teacher in whose class you had to do extra work to succeed, or one where you actively participated in discussion, or a teacher who mentored you in an extracurricular activity.

Ask early. Three weeks’ notice is the minimum. Six weeks to two months is even better.

Be straightforward when asking. It’s perfectly acceptable to try to discern whether the letter will be positive. Ask the teacher if she is willing to write a strong recommendation; if she hesitates, gracefully back away and ask someone else. Don’t take it personally. It’s better not to push for a letter that may not help your overall cause.

Be proactive. It’s no time to be shy. Pass along a copy of your résumé and remind your teacher of your accomplishments.

Make it easy. Provide a note (typed, please) with deadlines and any special instructions. It’s a good idea to even mention a specific assignment or paper from that teacher’s class, especially if it’s been a year or two since you were in that class. Remember, each teacher is probably writing multiple letters, so help them remember you as specifically as possible.

Say thank you! Express your appreciation by writing a thank-you note to each person who writes a letter for you. This is simply good manners, of course. But since teachers spend so many (unpaid) hours on this task every year, they truly deserve to know how much their efforts are valued. And feeling appreciated will encourage them to continue doing a good job for the students who follow you. Pay it forward.


Donna Spann is CEO of Capstone College and Career Advising in Tyler. A college adviser for 11 years, Donna leads a team of professionals who take a personal approach to advising that helps students navigate through career and college exploration, admissions, financial aid, and find the college that’s right for them. Have a question for Donna? Send it to You just may see your question answered in a future column.