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How to Get Outstanding Letters of Recommendation


As someone who has written hundreds of letters of recommendation, and has spent just as much time talking to the admissions officers who read others' letters of recommendation, I know that these letters can make or break your application.

But rec letters feel like something that is completely out of your control. 

Or are they?


  • Things you can do to ensure you will be getting outstanding recommendation letters
  • A secret strategy that has helped my students get into Harvard, Stanford, and other amazing schools. 

     And so much more.


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Recommendation letters for college applications can make or break your application. Really, for selective schools, they are a big deal. So let's take just a minute to talk about these letters of recommendation, not only whom you should ask for the letters of recommendation, but kind of what are the timelines on that. What are the special situations? I also want to give you the teacher's perspective as someone who in many of my schools. I was one of those teachers who was a popular recommendation letter writer. So what is the perspective of the teacher?

And then I want to share with you my secret strategy for helping you get the best letters of recommendation possible. I've never taught the strategy before outside the ivy league challenge, but I just wanted to share it with everyone, because I think it's so important that we do a better job in soliciting these outstanding letters of recommendation. I truly do credit, this strategy to some of the success that my students have had in getting into places like Harvard and Stanford and just amazing schools. This strategy is one of the reasons they got there. So let's start at the beginning with the simple stuff. Think it's important that everyone realize different colleges have different requirements or different ideas about what should go into a letter of recommendation. So, for example, Dartmouth asks for a pure letter recommendation, and that should not come from an adult. It shouldn't come from the coaches, should come from a teammate. It shouldn't come from a parent. It should come from a sibling, or it shouldn't come from a teacher. It should come from a classmate or a friend. So that the peer letter of recommendation is real. It is requested, and it is read by the Dartmouth admissions committee. That's something significant, but very few schools have anything like that.

Another example is yale university. They do not want extra letters of recommendation. Unless you have done the research. If you have worked with an expert in some research capacity, they want a letter from the professor, from the person who is leading the research, because they want to know what your level of participation was. They want to know how you contribute to a research team that is valuable enough that they want that letter of the recommendation above and beyond the other letters that they ask for.

And they specifically say they do not want any other letters of recommendation. All right. So it's important for you to know that different schools do have special circumstances, and they do expect that you're going to be aware of those. Take advantage. An extra letter of recommendation is super valuable. Don't send extra letters, though, if they don't ask for them. Okay, that's one of the mistakes that people make. And we'll get to that in just a second. For the most part. However, most colleges in the united states are going to ask for three letters of recommendation, two letters from core teachers. Most of the time they're going to ask for a letter from stem teachers, these are the maths and sciences. And the second letter of recommendation from someone in the humanities or to make it more clear, just someone who's not from the stem. All right. So these are your foreign language teachers, your English, your humanities, your economics et cetera. Now, most colleges prefer that you send in a letter from someone who taught you your junior year or senior year. The reason that is valuable is that colleges wanna see how you did in more rigorous classes compared to the less rigorous classes are somewhat more valuable to these admissions officers.

However, if because of coveting or because of an illness, because of a move, or some other extenuating circumstance, you have a teacher from grade ten or grade nine, who knows you much better than any of your teachers in grades 11 and 12? It's probably worth it to ask that teacher to write that letter recommendation rather than a grade 12 teacher that never saw you in person, or who just never got to know you very well.

But once again, the general rule is you wanna be asking teachers who taught you in later years, grade 11 or grade 12. In fact, maybe right now is the right time for common mistakes. So let's talk about those. First of all, don't send too many letters of recommendation. If they ask for two, send in two, if they ask for three, you send in three and you send the three that they're asking for. The second thing is don't overthink it. They may recommend, for example, that you send in two letters from teachers, from core subjects. Great. Choose two teachers from core subjects who like you and can write a good letter recommendation for you. And then it's a bad idea to buy into this idea. Sometimes it's popular for people to say I'm going to find my dad's friend who went to the school that I want to attend. So as an alumnus, he can write a letter recommendation on my behalf. Even though he barely knows me that letter is not going to land very well, it's not going to help you.

But that begs the question, what if he does know you? Right? What if this is someone who was not a core teacher, but is a coach, is a neighbor, was your employer, is a family friend, but not a relative? Is that an opportunity for you? Can you send it in, especially if this family friend or this coach, or this employer is well-known in the community? Is a famous alumnus of or alumna of the university or for some other reason might feel like they add value to your application? I just wanna caution you to be careful with that. If the college asks for two letters from core teachers, then they want two letters from core teachers. If it's clear that they're more flexible, they allow a third letter or they want you to choose the letters that make the most sense to you.

Then, by all means, choose someone who can vouch for you and someone who can write well on your behalf. The third letter of recommendation for most colleges, so you're going to have two teacher letters of recommendation. The third letter is going to come from your guidance counselor which may be frustrating for you to hear. Maybe your guidance counselor has a huge caseload of like 600 students, and they don't even know your name. How are they going to write a letter recommendation on your behalf? The truth is that the role of this guidance counselor for many of these schools is just to kind of give a bird's eye view of what the school situation is. So they're gonna talk about what the most rigorous classes are, where you might rank if the school does rank at students where you rank in the high school, and just give information that is useful for the admissions officers to understand more about your school.

So they understand the context from which your application comes. Right? However, if it is at all possible to get to know your guidance counselor, and to share your ideas, your core values, and your impact project with that guidance counselor, that should be done. You should make every effort to make that possible. So let me share from the teacher's perspective. Also the guidance counselor's perspective. It's important for you to know that writing letters of recommendation take time, and it is often a very thankless job. Very few of the hundreds of students for that I have written letters, of recommendation came back and thanked me for taking time after school hours away from my family or away from my sleep in order to write those letters of recommendation. Guidance counselors are also writing hundreds sometimes of these letters of recommendation. It's a lot of work and for the student to show some gratitude goes a long way, I would say you should begin showing gratitude very early on in the process.

Just as someone who wrote a lot of these letters, it really makes a difference if you can get to know that teacher beyond just teacher-student if you can kind of talk about some things, that go a little bit deeper man that goes long way. And if you'd show genuine gratitude for the times that the teacher helps you, that can be really, really helpful. Do the same thing with your guidance counselor. Anytime that you do ask to meet with them to ask questions, or to share your core values and your impact project to talk about, which universities might align best with your core values and things like that. We'll talk about this strategy in just a minute. Every time you meet with a teacher or a guidance counselor, you should think about how do I think of this person appropriately. Is it an email? Is it a handwritten note? Is it a little chocolate with a handwritten note? You're right. You don't need to think about spending lots of money or worrying about anything like that. Sincere gratitude is highly recommended.

Now, let's talk about the secret to the best letters of recommendation ever. Here's what I teach my students in the ivy league challenge. Of course, my students often began in grade eight or nine or ten, but I tell them leading up to grade 11, you're going to need to start thinking about this, so get to know which grade 11 teachers write the most letters of recommendation, which ones seem to write the best letters of recommendation, get to know who those teachers are.

If at all possible, if you've developed a relationship with your guidance counselor, they are going to know because they see the letters. You can just kind of ask them. I was thinking about getting a letter from this person and this person. What do you think? Are these teachers? Do these kinds of teachers write thoughtful and meaningful letters of recommendation or do they write form letters? And I should avoid them. Your guidance counselor will know that that is a really important reason to build that relationship. Guidance counselors are the ones who take the letters from the teachers and submit them to the databases that are used to send them to the common application or to, send them to the universities. The guidance counselors, if they're paying attention, they know a lot about which teachers write the best letters of recommendation. That's an important key. Once you figure out kind of your targets, you figure out who you think would be best to write these letters of recommendation.

At the beginning of my junior year, I, first of all, listen to my podcast about how to get straight because, in that podcast, I talk about how to talk to your teacher about your academic performance. Do that?

Talk to your teacher after tests and share your excitement, your enthusiasm, your curiosity for the subject, and also share where you're struggling and ask for help. Do it in a way that is mindful of the teacher's time and be grateful again for the help. But absolutely listen to that podcast and do what I teach in that podcast. But the second thing you're going to do that I've never shared with anyone before in this podcast. I've never shared outside of the ivy league challenge. I want you to send an email 2 to 4 months into junior year. You've already met with your teacher at least once for academic reasons. Hopefully, you've met with your teacher maybe even twice or 3 times by now. But you've met at least once. And now you're ready for kind of a deeper relationship. And you're going to send an email that email is going to say, dear, mister, or Mrs.

And so thank you so much for the effort and the obvious care that you bring to the classroom. I love how you taught this in this class. And the way that you taught that made me think about this, you're gonna write kind of this formula. I love when you taught this in class, it made me think about this. And that was really impactful for me because this is something really sincere and specific.

Then the next paragraph you're going to write, I have been thinking a lot about my core values lately. I really respect your opinion. I wonder if I could take 5 minutes of your time during your office hours to talk about my core values in what I've been thinking about and get your feedback on them. And then you just sincerely your name and send it off. They will be thrilled to talk about your core values with you. So that will be no problem at all. And that 5 minutes will turn into 15 minutes or 20 minutes. So don't schedule this like in between classes when you really only have 5 minutes, schedule it during office hours or before or after school.

But you're going to when you go and talk to your teacher about core values. I want you to bring up some sincere thinking that you've been doing about your core values. What makes you angry? What brings you joy? What breaks your heart? Whom do you admire? And why there are a number of different ways that you can kind of get to your core values, or at least begin to understand the things that really drive you. But spend some time sincerely thinking about that. If you are in the ivy league challenge, then absolutely use one of the worksheets that we go through to figure out your core values, use any one of those questions. But if you're not in the challenge, I'm giving you a few ideas here. Think about what brings you to life, and what really drives you at your core. Why do you admire certain things about certain people? What is it about those people that really makes you admire them and would bring you to life? If you could duplicate that? What breaks your heart in your community? Why does it break your heart? And as you begin, really thinking about these things and you become more self-aware, another good podcast to listen to is either of the two podcasts about how to write great essays, because those essays talk about how to be more thoughtful and how to be more complex and more nuanced in your thinking.

All of those exercises are things that you can then spend some time with, spend an hour, spend several hours thinking through on your own, and then go and talk to your teacher about that, and get their feedback. At the very, very least you can ask your teacher. These are the words that I think describe me at my best. What words would you use to describe me at my best? What words would you use to describe me in a normal situation? Even if it's something simple like that, that's fine. It's the combination of the EMAIL talking about how much you respect their class, and you honor the fact that they give so much to their teaching and that you are benefiting from it.

And then saying you respect their opinion and you want to talk about your core values. It's that EMAIL combined with a conversation that you just need to get started and let it go wherever it goes. And if it lasts 5 minutes or 25 minutes, it doesn't matter. Sending the EMAIL, followed up with a short or medium-sized conversation about your core values is all that you need to do. Trust me as a teacher. Your teacher after receiving this EMAIL and then this conversation, they're going to leave this. First of all, floating in club nine because look at these students who have recognized how hard they work and have appreciated them for that. That's unusual and that's going to help them feel great. Then they're going to be thinking this 14-year-old, this 15-year-old, this teenager is thinking about core values in a way that is so deep and so mature and so nuanced and so complex. I wasn't thinking about these things until my 40s, and here this person is at 14 or 15 or 16, already thinking more deeply about life and about taking meaning from life and how to contribute to the world.

What an impressive person I can tell you as someone who has taught for many years, and as someone who has written lots and lots and lots of letters of recommendation, it is often very difficult to think of ways to personalize these letters. Yes, you talk about how the student was always prepared for class, how they contributed in meaningful ways in the classroom discussions, and how they helped other students. There are things like that we can talk about. But to take this to the next level and say this is the most thoughtful teenager I've ever met. This is someone who at 13, 14, 15, 16 years old, is already asking the big life questions that I didn't ask until my mid-50s, or whatever the case may be, right? That letter of recommendation goes really far.

And then when you combine that EMAIL plus the conversation with updates throughout the year, about how you are integrating yourself awareness around your core values in your real life, right? How you're integrating that Information to create an impact in your community. And that's phase two of the Ivy League Challenge, right? I teach my students in phase one to find their core values in phase two, find a problem in their community that violates their core values, and begin solving it. That's called your impact project.

So give updates to your teacher about how the impact project is growing and expanding throughout the year and throughout the summer after Junior year leading into senior year. Right? You're going to ask your teacher to write these letters of recommendation sometime in Junior year, in the spring of Junior year. And then you're going to give them the entire summer to write that letter so that it's ready by early decision. And it's important to let them know if you are going to apply to a school early decision. It's important that they know kind of what those deadlines are. But you've given them lots of time to write that letter and lots of time to think about the impact that you've made in your community. And about this very unusual level of thoughtfulness that you bring to your impact project, this unusual level of self-awareness.

So your letter of recommendation stands head and shoulders above anyone else's. This is a game changer for your application, especially if you want to be competitive with these more selective schools. Oftentimes, it is the letters of recommendation that an in a world where it is very, very difficult to split hairs and find tiny differences between lots of outstanding candidates. It is these letters of recommendation that put you over the Top do not settle for a mediocre or a less than mediocre, an average letter recommendation. Just because those letters feel like they're outside of your control, take some control by learning which teachers are going to write the best letters by taking time and investing in a relationship with your guidance counselor if at all possible. And then following this strategy throughout Junior year, to build those relationships with those teachers. First of all, that's going to help you with your schoolwork. Anyway, you're going to do better in class. And then you will receive the most amazing letters from most teachers, as well as their sincere gratitude. You're building them up and recognizing them for the amazing contributors to their community that they are.

So that's the last thing that I want to say, be sure that this is all authentic. You're not doing any of this for the show, but I just wanted to share my perspective as an expert in this field, but also as someone who has written so many of these letters, and has been on the other side talking to them, people who read these letters, that perspective has allowed me to provide a strategy for my ambitious students in the ivory Challenge.

And I want to share that strategy with you, take advantage, make sure that you have the letters that will set you apart and get you into a great college.