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

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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 following things, but getting started early will help a lot.

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 are 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 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 reference doesn’t really know you. They will, therefore, discount the letter…and possibly you, too.

Although doing it can be scary, get to know a few potential recommenders as early as possible. Even if you don’t end up asking for a letter from those people, learning to interact 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 letters of recommendation with programs or jobs when the time comes.

There are several ways you can facilitate this kind of interaction. Sometimes you will be able to connect with teachers in classes or your supervisor at work. These are the easiest ways forward. Another option that can be very impactful is to participate in extracurricular clubs or programs run by your school, church or community. This is a great way to demonstrate to the sponsor that you care about something they are involved in. It also lets you show that you can be effective and responsible as part of a group. Letters from job supervisors may also show this.

Invitations to events celebrating your accomplishments recognize not only your achievements but also the part other people had in helping you. This kind of recognition goes a long way to encourage your potential references to write for you in the best light they can. They can also get more material on “who you are” to include in their letters on the outstanding person and candidate you have become.

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. 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 scholars and contributors to society they have built and want to maintain. These ideas are equally useful for anyone being recruited for athletics.

Another very effective way to give your recommenders the knowledge they need about who you are and what you want to do, is to give 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 references because they get more information to use in crafting the best possible letters. Writing thorough answers to all of the questions you are asked 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’ve 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 recommendations 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 when you are in middle or high school, you must initiate contact as a 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.

College students have to take the initiative. They have to reach out to people they want to work with now, or who may be able to offer connections to people with internships or desirable positions after graduation. Doing this is not as hard as many think. No matter how intimidating they seem, most faculty and potential employers love to talk about themselves and their work. So, going up to someone and saying, “Professor Taylor, I’m totally fascinated by the lecture and wanted to learn more about this topic,” is very 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 a professor to go into great detail on their work and, possibly, how you can contribute to it. By learning to connect with recommenders early 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.

Learn more about Dr. Matthew Weed at drmatthewweed.com or via @drmatthewweed on Instagram and Twitter.

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

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Matthew Weed

Matthew Weed

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

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