How to Help Your Recommenders Help You

Your recommenders are key allies. Here's how to work with them productively.
November 21, 2016

Have you already lined up your recommenders? If not, get cracking, because they are your key allies in the application process. Best case scenario, you already talked to them at the end of 11th grade about writing recommendations for you. But if you’re a senior and you haven't already done so, it’s not too late.

Your core recommendations typically come in the form of a school report from your school-based college counselor and two academic recommendations from your teachers. (The number of teacher recommendations might vary among your colleges.)

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. Here are the five things for you to focus on:

1. Confirm your individual colleges' requirements for teacher recommendations: how many and in which subjects. Make appointments to meet with your recommenders. Look out for specific requirements that might influence whom you ask to be a recommender. Ask for any scholarship recommendations at the same time so that you don’t have to go back to the same people with new requests.

2. Play nicely with your school counselor. 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. What the admissions officer learns from the school report will have a direct bearing on your academic rating by the admissions officer. Follow the rules and work within the system (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.

3. Choose teacher recommenders who can help you tell your story best. Although you don’t always have a choice when it comes to your recommenders, when you do have a choice, 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 (low grades, 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. (You'll find more tip in Inline about how to handle any negatives in your applications.)

4. 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 access rights. Typically, the only reason applicants decline to waive access is when applicants are concerned about what the recommender might say and 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. You're better off waiving your access.

5. Be polite. Always. The way you interact with these allies shapes their impression of you. Any whiff of entitlement or ingratitude will count against you. So will blowing them off. Follow up with them, find out if they need anything from you, make sure you get them what they need, and when your applications are wrapped up, send them thank-you notes.

You can find more tips in Inline about recommendations, including the different logistics for Naviance vs. non-Naviance high schools.

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 college admissions bible How to Prepare a Standout College Application. Learn more about Anna's background here.

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