26 Weeks to College: Week 11

Here's how to pick the best recommenders for your college applications
September 14, 2020

Now that your senior year is underway, it's time to line up your recommenders – they are key allies and advocates in this process.

Recommendations make a difference, and it is up to you to make sure that the recommendations you get will make a positive difference for you and influence the admissions officer in your favor.


WEEK 11 TO-DOS


THIS WEEK

  • Confirm what recommendations and supporting documentation from your high school (transcript, etc.) are required by each college on your list. A typical requirement is a counselor recommendation, a school report provided by your counselor, and recommendations from one or two teachers.

  • Check in with your school’s college counseling office and confirm the procedure for getting your counselor recommendation and the required school report (usually called a Secondary School Report – it includes your transcript and other information about your high school).

  • Secure your teacher recommendations if you haven't already done so at the end of 11th grade. Look out for specific requirements at a particular college that might influence whom you ask to be a recommender. Ask for any scholarship recommendations at the same time.

  • Continue working on your essays. You should be on a revolving three-week cycle from now until you’ve completed all the essays you have to write – each week, you’ll be drafting one set, revising another set, and finalizing a final set. This will keep your momentum going without overwhelming you. Refer often to your Writing Map to make sure you are keeping pace with deadlines. Aim to have all your essays finalized at least a week before the submission deadline.

  • Using your templates for the Why College X and Why Major X, draft your answers to 1-2 of these short answers or essays. You’ll have to do some research to make your answers sufficiently specific. See Week 10 for tips about getting the content right.
  • Continue working on supplementary materials, such as portfolios, audition materials, research abstracts, and the like if you will be submitting them. Your goal should be to have these finished in the next couple of weeks. See our advice about these materials in Week 4 and these blog posts on arts supplements and academic work samples.

  • Check the websites of colleges on your list to see what they are planning in terms of fall events for prospective students. Given the pandemic, it is unlikely that they will be doing their usual rounds to high schools, but they may be organizing specific virtual events for students from your school or your area. See our Tips and Tricks in Week 5 for why we recommend that you make it a priority to attend these events.
  • Complete a draft of your first scholarship application, including drafting any essays. You’ll put your scholarship applications on the same three-week writing cycle as your applications and you’ll knock them out in no time.


THIS WEEK AND EVERY WEEK

  • Check your email, voicemail, texts, and snail mail for any communications that relate to applying to college. Read them and take whatever action is necessary.

  • Update your parents about what you’re doing. This regular communication will work wonders in your relationship with your parents during this stress-filled year.



TIPS AND TRICKS

1. Help your counselor help you. Admissions officers place a lot of weight on what school counselors have to say about an applicant in the school report, and a negative report can be the kiss of death. In other words, your school counselor is an important ally in the process, so respect the role they play. Follow the rules and work within the system, because your counselor is bound by school policies as much as you are). Give your counselor as much lead time as possible, and take any opportunity to let the counselor get to know you. You can read more advice about the school report, including specific tips for international students and homeschoolers, in chapter 18 of our book, How to Prepare a Standout Application, or in hints found in our Inline software.

2. Choose recommenders who can help you tell your story best. Go back to your story that you wrote in Week 2. Although you won’t always have a choice when it comes to your recommenders, when you do have a choice, you want to choose the recommenders who can help you tell your story best. Pick recommenders who know you well, who can speak about your positives and negatives based on direct experience, and who like you. If you have significant negatives to overcome (for example very low grades, or a disciplinary or criminal record), choose at least one recommender who can address these negatives either because of the recommender’s position or because of the recommender’s knowledge of and experience with you. Read more tips about choosing and working with recommenders in chapter 19 of our book How to Prepare a Standout Application, or in hints found in our Inline software.

3. Waive access to your recommendations. Under the law, you have the right to see your recommendations (and all other application materials that remain in your student record) after you have been admitted to and enroll in a college, unless you waive that right. The recommendation forms give you an opportunity to waive your rights to access. Typically, the only reason applicants decline to waive access is when applicants are concerned about what the recommender might say, and so they want to discourage the recommender from saying anything negative. That creates a new and equally serious problem: a recommendation that will not have much heft. When you do not waive access, you are not only sending a signal to the recommender, you are also sending a signal to the admissions officer, who might conclude that this recommendation cannot be fully trusted because the recommender could not be completely frank. Either waive access or choose a different recommender in whom you feel more confident.

4. Prepare for the virtual college events so you can make a positive impression. It's fine to treat these virtual college events as an information-gathering exercise on your part rather than a full-on sales pitch for your admission. But you still want to make a positive impression, because any contact you have with a school representative (whether an admissions officer, an alum, an administrator, or a current student ambassador) will make an impression that could affect the final admissions decision. You want to come across as an applicant who has done their homework about the college. Introduce yourself and ask questions or make comments that convey your genuine curiosity and interest in the college. Don’t just lurk on mute the whole time. Make sure you keep track of the names of the admissions representatives you meet and try to get contact information for them. Send a quick thank you via email after the event. If you do all this, you’ll leave the college reps feeling excited about the prospect of receiving an application from you.

Anna Ivey is one of the founders of Inline. An experienced admissions consultant and a frequently cited media expert on the topic of college admissions, she is also co-author of the book How to Prepare a Standout College Application. Learn more about Anna's background here.

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