The Great Lie of Higher Education
The college-for-all rallying cry has gone bust. Find out why.
This is the ideal time to select the teachers who will write your letter(s) of recommendation for college. Junior core academic teachers are usually the best recommenders because they are more likely to have taught you in a high-level course, perhaps know you for several years and can speak to your growth. A teacher’s recommendation carries weight in the college admissions process because the teacher can evaluate − relative to other students − your work, intellectual vitality, resourcefulness, collaborative spirit, and more.
Some high schools actually place limits on how many recommendations teachers may write, so be sure to approach your choices early to ensure a letter for you. Assume that popular teachers will have a lot of students asking for recommendations. If you wait too long, those teachers may not have time to write a compelling letter for you. And it’s best to select at least one teacher in a subject related to your potential major. Here are some steps to smooth the way:
Step 1: Come up with a one-sentence summary about who you are as a unique college candidate.
Come up with a one-sentence summary about who you are as a unique college candidate. Have it encapsulate who you are or a vision of who you wish to become. Have fun with this and repeat the process until you feel you’ve got yourself pinned down! For example, I dubbed myself the Guru of Extracurricular Activities, and started my statement with “Perhaps you don’t know that I have the unique distinction of being…”. Another way to do this is to start with your best subject or intended major than add a vision of your future – just be sure you don’t come off as bragging.
Ex. I’m the only student in my class who is a national and international equestrian champion with a 4.0 GPA and who is a published writer in the Estonia Press.
Ex. My favorite subject is math and I would like to major in business. I have won more tennis tournaments than anyone in my high school’s history, and I envision myself owning a tennis training business for college players who wish to become virtual tennis coaches.
Step 2: Use a questionnaire to summarize your interests and activities.
Most schools use some sort of questionnaire to summarize your interests and activities. Take your time filling out the Naviance or other questionnaire/brag sheet, since your recommender(s) will probably read the entry to learn more about you before writing your letter. By composing well-written, interesting questionnaire responses, you have an opportunity to influence what each teacher will say about you.
Step 3: Reach out to your teacher.
Whether you ask in person or via email, send an email (a follow-up in the case of an in-person request) to let the teacher know how honored you’d be to have a recommendation letter from him/her. One very sought-after teacher responded to her student’s email this way:
“It would be my pleasure as I have only good things to say about you. Your email really warmed my heart. It was the kindness and most polite request for a letter of recommendation I have ever received!” And I had no idea you wrote a book. I absolutely must take a look!”
What was the teacher responding to? A well-crafted request, part of which we present below:
“I hope you’re doing well. I am writing to ask if you would do me the honor of writing my letter of recommendation for college. I believe this would represent me well as when I initially began your class, like all my other classes, I was hyper-focused on getting a good grade. However, as the year progressed, under your guidance I was able to explore my passion for English, which enabled me to appreciate the process of writing, revising and textual analysis….It may be helpful in the writing process for you to know that I was a finalist in the South Florida Chamber of Commerce’s Young Entrepreneurs Academy and with the tools given to me in your class, I authored [a book about autism], which became on Amazon best seller in its category….
Share a few special memories about the class – the ways the teacher inspired you or assignments that you really enjoyed. If you struggled in the class but made a strong improvement, be sure to mention that as well as the life lesson you learned from this teacher/class. Include a short statement about your most significant involvements outside of class so that the teacher may also reflect on them.
Finally, make sure to attach a copy of your résumé so that your teacher can speak about your impact and involvement at the school and the community.
Although it’s best to ask in person, it’s ok to reach out by email. Regardless of whether the teacher agrees or not, be sure to say thank you in a very sincere way.
Step 4: Meet your high school counselor.
Meet with your high school counselor – as most colleges also require a counselor recommendation. This is extremely important since many school counselors have hundreds of students and cannot know each student. If you are able to make an appointment with your school counselor, plan a face-to-face visit (it can be on Zoom) so the counselor can at least put a face to a name. If not, send the counselor an email to avoid an impersonal letter that just repeats the items on your resume; provide the counselor with a short story that will let him or her know some important things about you. Your answers to the following five questions provide the basis for the story that you can share with the counselor. If the counselor doesn’t know you, I encourage you to send a picture along with your email.
The answers to the questions below will provide unique information for the counselor and will help you see the story your application should tell. Is it compelling?
Step 5: Provide your counselor with a short story.
Your answers to the following 5 questions provide the basis for the story that you can share with the counselor. If the counselor does not know you, I encourage you to send a picture along with your email.
- A statement that describes your demographic group or family background. This information is important to the colleges.I am part of a large Colombian family who speak Spanish at home; I am the first student in my family to attend college (first gen).
Everyone can make some type of memorable demographic statement or family statement: ex. I’m a city girl; I grew up in the heart of New York City and I’m named after my mother’s favorite Beatle, Ringo Starr.
- Inside the classroom, I really enjoy……….
Biggest academic strength? What’s your area of interest within the subject? Ex. Academic strength? Science/Astronomy What‘s your area of interest? Planets, space travel or the black hole?
- Outside the classroom, I’m involved in…
Biggest nonacademic, personal strength?
- Friends and family describe me as…
Use an adjective linked to a one-sentence reason. Ex. Friends and family describe me as daring because I always set challenges for myself; I organized a 50-mile bike ride for my friends; we rode from Miami to Boca Raton.
- My plans for the future include (a major in.., a career as …)
Make this statement bold, creative and visionary (loosely based on the truth…it’s your plan).I want to major in anthropology and, I want to have my own company that focuses on adventure travel for teens.
Step 6: Ensure accuracy!
Providing this information virtually or by email lets your school counselor understand the story you’re trying to tell. Ensure that everything you say is accurate, honest, and distinctive. Remember, if any of your story changes before you apply, be sure to let the school counselor know so you don’t have information reported on your application that conflicts with the recommendation letter contents.