Need Good Recommendations for College? Here’s How You Can Get Them

Photo by Lewis Keegan on Unsplash

If you’re a high school senior, you can still do a lot to get strong recommendations for college or for jobs after you graduate this spring.

That said, starting on this early in your life will help a lot.

Many students ask me questions like: “How can I get great letters from my recommenders?” Even if you’re a senior, it’s not too late to try the things I suggest below. As with everything in your life, the earlier you start working hard on this the better off you’ll be.

This is particularly true now that many schools don’t require test scores to evaluate applicants. As a result, good recommendations from people who know you well are even more important than they were before Covid-19 started affecting the college admissions process.

No matter how introverted you may be, or how intimidating you may find your potential recommenders, building a few high-quality connections to people who know, like, and thoroughly respect you will be far more helpful to you than anything else you can do where getting good recommendations is concerned.

Some students ask people they barely know for recommendations just because they are “important” or “well known” in their communities.

Some parents use gifts to incentivize recommenders to write very positive letters for their children.

These are very risky strategies.

No matter how complimentary a recommendation may be, if there isn’t a lot of substantive information on you, your interests, and the interactions that person had with you in their letter, admissions offices will see your referee doesn’t know you well. They may well discount that recommendation… and possibly you, too.

As a thought to parents and students alike, although doing it can be scary, encourage your children (or yourself if you’re early on in school) to spend time with a few potential recommenders as early as you can.

Even if those people don’t write a letter, learning to interact with people in an environment that is partly social and partly business will be invaluable in your future life and work. Ultimately, the more potential recommenders who know you well, the better you’ll be able to match recommenders with schools or jobs when the time comes.

There are several ways you can facilitate this kind of interaction. You can connect with teachers in classes or your supervisor at work in whatever jobs you take during school. These are the easiest connections to make because you see those people regularly.

Another way that often leads to strong letters is enthusiastic participation in extracurricular clubs or programs run by your school, church or community. This is a fantastic way to show the sponsor you care about what you — and they — are doing. It also lets you show you can be an effective and responsible contributor to a group. Letters from coaches or job supervisors can also show this.

Find mutually workable times to chat with your potential recommenders when you’re at school, work, or before or after your extracurricular activities. The more time recommenders spend around you and others who know you well, the more material on “who you are” they’ll have to include in their letters on the outstanding person and candidate you are.

Make sure to continue to spend time interacting with people with whom you had strong relationships in earlier parts of your life as you get older. Doing so is as easy as sending them an e-mail or text.

Most of your college recommendations should probably come from people you interact with during high school. That said, colleges are very open to letters from people you knew at earlier stages of your life if that information helps them understand “who you are.” This knowledge, no matter where it comes from, helps them decide if you are likely to be a good fit for the community of leaders, scholars and contributors to society they have built and want to maintain.

These ideas are equally useful for anyone being recruited for athletics, music, or other highly prized skills.

Another highly effective way to give your recommenders the knowledge they need about “who you are” and what you want to do, is to offer highly detailed responses to any questionnaires you receive from colleges or scholarship committees about you and your interests. Detailed answers are extremely helpful to your referees’ letters because they get more information to use in discussing you.

Writing thorough answers to all of the questions you are asked in this paperwork is, therefore, an essentially important use of your time that can make the difference between being admitted or rejected at colleges you want to go to.

I have already mentioned how important practicing relationship-building with possible recommenders can be. Learning how to do this is an essential long-term life skill.

I say this because you don’t stop getting recommendations once you get to college. Your professors, deans, coaches, and job supervisors will write letters — or give verbal endorsements — for you for the rest of your life.

How you build those relationships will change somewhat as you get older. For instance, whereas your parents or guardians may help you reach out to your teachers early in your life, you will be far likelier to make initiate contact as a high school or college student.

There are very strict — and often strictly enforced — rules about “people with power” seeking contact with individual students outside of class. These rules protect everyone from a variety of interactions that could prove scandalous or otherwise difficult for all concerned.

Therefore, getting good recommendations will require you to show some initiative. You will usually have to reach out to people you want to work with now, or who may be able to help you connect to people with internships or desirable positions after graduation. They, after all, are busy and likelier to notice someone who works to get their positive attention more than people who hide in the shadows.

Gaining positive attention that can lead to a recommendation is not as hard as you may think. No matter how intimidating they seem, most people who lead or sponsor activities, high-school or college faculty and potential employers love to talk about themselves and their work.

So, going up to a teacher in high school or a professor in college and saying: “Ms. Chiang, I’m totally fascinated by the lecture and wanted to learn more about this topic,” is likely to get you the chance to meet with her during her office hours.

You then only need to have a few leading questions to get someone to talk about the project, class or whatever has brought you into their sphere of influence. By showing interest, you may not only make them see you more positively, you may also do things like research during college or get led to opportunities your peers won’t earn because they didn’t show initiative.

This is the perfect example of “You don’t win if you don’t play the game.”

By learning to connect with recommenders whether teachers, preachers, or community leaders early in your life, you’ll develop an essential skill that can help you not only get into college but also succeed there and in your career after you graduate.

See the Educational Search Consulting page on my website to learn about my work in this area and schedule personalized attention if you are interested in that. I also have rapidly growing sets of hundreds of pointers to material by a wide variety of authors in my Resources for Students Applying to College and collection of links to information on Covid-19 And The College Scene which, for now, there is no cost to access.

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Matthew Weed

Yale, Harvard, Princeton grad. Blind and diabetic kayaker, skier, and speaker. Advocating for everyone to care of themselves and others.