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Letters of recommendation - who, when, and how

In the sixth of her 12-part series, Katherine Ernst Mehta talks about how to get a recommendation letter that can take you one step closer to your dream school.
BY Katherine Ernst Mehta |   05-08-2016

Many students may struggle to highlight their achievements in their college applications, because they feel like it comes across as bragging.  Fortunately, letters of recommendation offer an opportunity for someone else, who knows you well enough to talk about those achievements, as well as your personality and potential. Colleges use letters of recommendation to learn about you, beyond your grades and test scores, and gain insight into who you are. Usually, you will be asked to provide two teacher recommendations, one counsellor recommendation, and may also have the option to include an additional recommendation from a coach, mentor, or internship supervisor.

Whom to Ask

  • Choose teachers or mentors from Class 11 or Class 12. Colleges want a current perspective on you, so someone who interacted with you several years ago isn't the best choice.
  • Consider asking a teacher who also knows you outside the classroom, for example, your Class Teacher or Co-Curricular Head.
  • Always ask a potential recommender if he or she would be comfortable writing a recommendation for you.  It’s a good way to avoid weak letters.

When to Ask

Make sure to give your recommenders at least one month before your earliest application deadline to complete and send your letters.  You should aim to ask them by the beginning of Class 12. Remember that some teachers will be writing dozens of letters, which takes time. Your teachers will do a better job on your letter if they don’t have to rush.

How to Get the Best Recommendations

To help your teachers, counsellors and mentors write effective recommendations, you should provide them with bullet points that give positive, detailed information about your achievements and potential.  Your bullet points should include specific examples or anecdotes that could cover any of the following:

  • How long the recommender has known you, and the context of your relationship
  • Your academic performance, including high grades earned or academic awards
  • Any personal or academic challenges you’ve worked to overcome
  • Any exceptional skills, talents, or leadership ability
  • Your social skills, and how you interact with teachers and peers
  • What makes you stand out from the rest of your class
  • What motivates and excites you
  • Your contribution to the classroom, your school, or your community
  • How you’ve applied what you’ve learned in class, and extended your learning beyond the normal classroom experience
  • Any extracurricular activities that the recommender would be familiar with
  • What you will be able to contribute to a college community
  • Your ability to succeed at the university level

Once you’ve asked your recommenders for letters, give them some time to write.  But do be sure to keep track of the recommendations.  You don’t want to realize at the last minute that one of the letters of recommendation was overlooked!  And, once the letters are written, be sure to thank your recommenders for their time, and for helping you get one step closer to your dream school!


Katherine Ernst Mehta is CEO and Founder of Edvanta Consulting, which works with international high-school students seeking admission to US universities. She first came from the US to India for research, and now lives in Delhi. You can reach her on Twitter at @EdvantaCo. Previous instalments of her 12-part series on US college admissions are here.



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