Strong recommendations are key to winning competitive undergraduate and graduate study admissions, as well as volunteer, scholarship and fellowship opportunities. The recommendation provides a third-party assessment of you that the admissions or selection committee can use to ascertain your qualifications, character, interests, and passion.

Recommendations function somewhat as testimonials; they are written by people who have had a chance to assess your work over some extended period. Your recommendations should advocate for you.

Here are four tips for getting a strong recommendation:


  1. Choose recommenders you trust—people who will portray you in a strong and positive light, and take the time to write something unique, relevant and grammatically correct. The best recommenders are people who feel personally invested in the outcome of your application.
  1. Make it easy for your recommenders to pen a stellar letter—give them plenty of time to write! High school teachers will be busy in September, so go ahead and approach them before you leave school in May. Your former college professors may be busy with research or travel, so reconnect with them at least six months before you need a letter and let them know of your intentions.
  1. Guide your recommenders. As I once heard someone say, “Who is more suited to toot your own horn than you?” You should have thoroughly researched the opportunity you are interested in and understood why it is perfectly suited to your goals, and why you deserve to win it. Communicate your selling points to your recommender; the most convenient way to do this is by talking with them, and then giving them a ‘brag sheet’ with bullet points of your relevant accomplishments as well as a copy of your resume or CV.
  1. When getting more than one recommendation, approach people who can speak to different strengths. For example, if applying to a liberal arts institution that values students with broad interests, secure a recommendation from teachers who can speak to your strengths in disparate disciplines, e.g., in the arts and sciences. If applying to graduate school, approach someone who can speak to your academic prowess and someone else who can speak to your impact in professional settings.

BONUS : Don’t forget to thank your recommenders! One, it is thoughtful. Two, you might find yourself asking them to write on your behalf again and again.

Which strategies have you used to secure stellar recommendations?

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