Three Tips to Get a Great Letter of Recommendation for College Admissions


Gemstones usually carry a certificate of authenticity, testifying to their quality. A Letter of Recommendation (LOR) is your certificate of authenticity in the overseas college application journey.

Think of LORs as an opportunity. An opportunity for the admissions office and an opportunity for you. If you’re a defendant making a case for yourself, it’s another useful witness in your toolkit. (Remember: colleges deeply want to say yes, not no!)[1] Admissions officers can easily sniff out insincerity and inconsistency in a recommendation. Therefore, it is vital to provide a positive, yet accurate summary of the student’s accomplishments and character—all with a healthy dose of authenticity.

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[1] Seriously, you’re “innocent until proven guilty.” As former UPenn admissions officer and multi-Ivy graduate, Nadirah Farah, has stated, admissions departments are on your side. They’re looking for ways to accept you, not reject you.

So, if someone else is going to be doing the writing is there anything you can do to ensure you get a great LOR. Here are certain pointers you can follow

  1. Curate the right mix of recommenders

When it comes to LORs, the ‘who’ is almost as important as the ‘what’.

An ideal recommender would be someone who has a long association with you and can objectively evaluate your capabilities based on this association. (No, family and friends do not qualify.)

For undergraduate applicants, this role is best filled by school counsellors, subject teachers, internship supervisors, instructors and coaches, and, in some cases, peers. 

The key here is to curate the right mix.

First, find recommenders who know you well enough to write an insightful and inspiring letter. No point approaching that ‘reputed’ teacher to write that letter if you haven’t had much interaction.

Next, ensure diversity. Typically, colleges require 2-3 recommenders. Find a recommender mix that presents a multi-dimensional snapshot of your character. You should choose a Subject Teacher Recommender and an External Recommender.

Choose a subject teacher recommender from areas relevant to your academic background or intended field of study, but don’t stress if you have no/few prospects. Remember: Quality is most important, for most schools are liberal arts-focused, and admissions officers can glean much from how you perform in any subject. “How you do one thing is how you do everything,”

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External Recommendations are sometimes a great way to add a unique perspective. A recommendation from your internship supervisors, art instructor, or coach in the other recommender category could demonstrate your skills and values in a professional context.

The third recommender could be a peer – Dartmouth and Davidson require peer recommendations.

  1. Arm them with the right information

Provide the recommender with the ammunition required to write a strong LoR.

Prepare a brag sheet to share with your recommenders – a list of things you have worked on, the measurable results of those engagements, and your role in the process.

Be as concrete and specific as possible. This isn’t the time to be shy. Remember that extra credit assignment you did for your Sociology class? Bring it up. Created a mind-blowing project for the science fair? Put it down. Suggested process improvements to your manager during the summer internship? Ditto.

Many schools have brag sheet formats. If yours doesn’t, try using the Common App: Counsellor Brag Sheet, Teacher Brag Sheet.

  1. Stay on top of the logistics

Approach your recommenders for the letters early. This shows consideration and gives you time to look for alternatives if someone declines. Remember, teachers have multiple students approaching them for LoRs.

Follow up with the recommenders. You have already provided them with the brag sheet. Is there any other information they require?

Does your school have an established process for LORs? Follow it faithfully. Finally, don’t forget to thank your recommenders when your applications are done!

There you have it: a strong LOR gives a clear, authentic, and objective picture of your personality. Wielded well, it can be a powerful differentiator making you stand out against a mass of equally qualified candidates.

~Authored by Poshak Agrawal, Co-Founder of Athena Education