College Prep

How to Ask Your Favorite Mentors for a Letter of Recommendation for Your College Application

High school student reading a letter of recommendation

Are you a high school student planning your collegiate future? Well done on thinking ahead! As you organize your to-do list, don’t forget to include letters of recommendation as a priority. 

What is a letter of recommendation?

A letter of recommendation is a document that praises your skills, achievements, and character. It can be used for a variety of reasons — college admissions being a huge one, as they are frequently a requirement for college applications. A strong recommendation allows the person reviewing your application to get to know you beyond your resume, giving a more complete picture of who you are and what motivates you. Typically, adding one to three of these references to your application, is a safe addition. 

So how do you determine which mentors to ask, and how?

For a high school student, mentors come in many forms. It could be the mom of the kids you have babysat for since middle school. It could be a business owner who gave you an afterschool job, club organizers, or college prep courses you participated in over the summers. Think of all the things you’ve done where a supervising adult can sing your praises:

  • Junior camp counselor
  • Mentor (guidance counselor, teacher, coach &/or religious clergyman)
  • Babysitter
  • Dog walker
  • Club member (debate, science, STEM, yearbook, etc.)
  • After school job
  • Intern
  • College prep programs

No matter how you spend your time in and out of school, there’s always an adult who can offer a few good words when you need them most, especially on your college application.

What are steps to take to collect a few letters of recommendation? Here are six. 

Six steps for getting a strong letter of recommendation

A really enthusiastic letter of recommendation can be a big influencer in getting you into one of your top-choice schools. The key steps to take include:

  1. Choose who writes letters on your behalf: Someone who knows you well and can speak to your character and reliability is best. Top on the list are teachers, guidance counselors, and coaches. They can speak best to your performance, reliability, leadership potential, and of course, notable academic achievements. 
    Make sure one letter is from your guidance counselor. If you don’t know them well, ask for an in-person meeting where you can get acquainted and share your goals and accomplishments. Be sure to remind your guidance counselor of all your hard work, including any clubs you belong to and any college prep courses you’ve taken.

  1. Prepare a brag sheet: Since it’s likely you haven’t created a resume yet, brag sheets are your next best choice. This is a list that highlights your qualifications and best characteristics. Make sure to include:

  • The notable courses you took, and the grade you received
  • One or two of your top attributes with examples of how you’ve demonstrated them in class or at work
  • Your overall GPA, test scores, and top academic accomplishments
  • Extracurricular activities, including summer immersion courses and other notable activities
  • Volunteer work
  • Work experience
  • A short blurb about your goals

  1. Ask first: Before listing someone as a reference, speak to each personally. This will ensure you get a fair recommendation, maybe even a glowing one. But allow them time to prepare.

  1. Send a formal request: To each person who has agreed to write a letter on your behalf. Include details such as:

  1. Follow up: Make sure to send polite reminders to anyone who has yet to provide your letter of recommendation. And make sure to include a sincere “thank you” for their willingness to help.

  1. Send a word of thanks: It’s common courtesy to send a brief, handwritten thank you note to everyone who wrote a letter on your behalf. Let them know when / if you are accepted to one of your schools of choice.

A couple more tips to ensure you get the most out of the letter of recommendation process:

  • Give ample time: teachers and mentors are busy, give them plenty of time to write a dynamic letter on your behalf.  
  • If one mentor hesitates, move onto someone else: people may want to help, but don’t have the bandwidth to do so. Don’t take this personally and move onto someone else.

If you leave a club or job, as for a letter upfront: this ensures that the memories of your positive attributes are fresh in their head.

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