There’s more you need to know about letters of recommendation

Many students unwittingly treat letters of recommendation as an afterthought. They ask teachers and recommenders late in the process and often fail to provide them with sufficient tools to get the job done right.

Big mistake.

Letters of recommendation can often play a critical role in admissions, particularly at more elite colleges and universities. There’s no question – a bad letter of recommendation can be a spoiler.

Myths and truths about letters of recommendation

Myth: If your neighbor’s great uncle “knows” somebody in the admissions office, an elected official or a celebrity, make sure he writes a letter on your student’s behalf.

Truth: This kind of letter of recommendation can actually hurt a candidate. Colleges want to hear from people who know applicants well and can attest to their character, not their grandfather’s golf game.

Myth: Applicants should only ask for a letter of recommendation if they received an A in the class.

Truth: Colleges want to hear about a student’s effort, overcoming challenges, leadership skills and, most importantly, progress made throughout the year. So even if a student ended up with a B but had solid improvement, that could be the letter that works.

Myth: Teachers have to write the letters of recommendation.

Truth: Teachers are not obligated to write recommendations. They can say “no.”

Look at the difference between these two recommendations:

“Robert is curious – he is one of my strongest students and consistently questions what we’re reading and discussing. Additionally, he is one of the most easily recognizable leaders on our campus. Robert is also a student who is modest and seeks to make a difference in the lives of the people around him, and he does so without requiring the spotlight.”

“Daria is hard-working and seems to get along well with her peers. She hasn’t missed a class or failed to turn in an assignment. She is very reliable.”

Which student would you choose? It’s an easy hands-down for Robert. The teacher added context and took the time to make the recommendation personal and not generic. The letter for Daria sounds like it could have been written for any number of students, and it is lackluster and underwhelming at best.

Make the recommender’s job as easy as possible. Be sure to prepare a resume or brag sheet that details your extracurricular and community service experiences, leadership roles, honors, awards and accomplishments. Teachers and other recommenders will appreciate having more information, and your letter of recommendation will be richer for your efforts.

Recognize that you’re asking for a favor. Teachers, coaches and advisers are not required to write letters of recommendation, and they are not compensated for the extra time needed to write and review them. Be considerate of their time by being prepared. Put together a two-pocket folder with your resume on one side and a listing of each of the colleges and their deadlines on the other side. Give them at least two weeks, but preferably a month, of lead time.

Lastly, show your appreciation. After your letters of recommendation have been submitted, make sure to send a personal note of thanks. Hard-copy, as opposed to email, is preferred. And, even more importantly, update your recommenders once the acceptances start rolling in and inform them of your final college choice. They really appreciate being kept in the loop.

Bierer is an independent college adviser based in Charlotte. Send questions to: