Letters of recommendation are an often overlooked or neglected piece of a college or graduate school application. 

Too often, students dismiss letters, thinking that they have no control over the contents or process. However, recommendations can serve a very important role in shaping an applicant’s narrative. 

Here are some simple steps that you can take to ensure that you’re getting powerful recommendation letters that help to make you more competitive. 

Build relationships early

Getting great recommendations starts with building relationships early. Stay after class, express your sincere curiosity, take an interest in an instructor, and keep in touch. Building a relationship isn’t hard, but it requires you to put yourself out there and invest your time. 

Be authentic

Building relationships doesn’t mean being smarmy, sales-y, or fake. Be real, and let people get to know the real you. 

Choose your recommenders carefully

Before you solicit a recommendation, know your narrative. What kind of student are you? What are your strengths and weaknesses? What is your story? Try to view yourself as an admissions officer might, and find the recommender that can best back up what you believe about yourself or one who can fill any "holes" in your application. For example, if you’re a primarily math and science-focused student who needs to show some more interests in the humanities, you may want to strategically choose that history teacher with whom you have a great relationship to write your recommendation. 

Craft your request

Most students make the mistake of asking for a recommendation with no more than “can you write a recommendation to ____ for me?” But, there’s a lot more you can do to shape your letter! For example, you can make the teacher’s job easier by reminding him or her of your accomplishments in class. If necessary, you can attach your personal statement or resume to your request. You might even consider asking the teacher to highlight specific qualities that make you a great candidate by saying something like, “I had hoped you would write me a recommendation because you can really speak to my skills as a debater.” All of this depends on your relationship with the teacher and what your application needs. You definitely do not want to overstep your boundaries by telling the teacher what to write, but you can try to influence the process in an ethical way, based on what you need. 

Ask early and follow up

It’s not uncommon for instructors to get swamped with recommendation requests. Ask early with a clear, concise, well-crafted email, give a clear deadline for when it’s due, and then follow up to make sure it has been completed. The worst recommendation is one that’s never submitted. Once you’ve confirmed that the letter was sent without a hitch, make sure to send your instructor a handwritten thank-you note.