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How to Get the Best Recommendations

Our founder always says that in the tens of thousands of applications he’s read, he’s never come across a bad recommendation. You might be surprised, but imagine how letters of recommendation are produced for college applications. A student asks a teacher, Could you write me a recommendation, please? Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, the teacher says yes. When a teacher says no, it’s because they couldn’t, in good faith, write the student a positive recommendation.

Most high school teachers simply will not write a negative recommendation. This is good news, but it also means that your job is not just getting a simple Yes. Instead, make your recommenders excited to write their letters. You’ll make their job easier and end up with much better recommendations.

The most important thing to do is to talk to your recommenders. Ideally, you should go in and speak with each one two or three times in the months leading up to the application deadlines. It doesn’t have to be—and shouldn’t be—nerve-wracking, or overly formal, or anything like an interview. The point is for your recommenders to get to know you and your college aspirations a bit better; just go in and chat for a while.

Most high school students don’t understand that their recommenders will be happy to speak with them. Not only will a recommender appreciate the chance to get to know you and have a relaxed conversation, but it will make writing their letter exponentially easier.

You also might not realize that your recommenders need help. In high school, each teacher looms large in your life. You spend around five hours a week looking at a teacher while they talk. You spend hours at home completing homework that they have assigned. In contrast, your teacher has twenty-five or thirty faces in front of him, all equally deserving of attention and space in his mind. He might grade a hundred homework assignments in a week. When you recognize this asymmetry in the teacher-student relationship, you realize that your teachers, even the ones you like enough to ask for letters, don’t know everything about you. They don’t know what you daydream about in their classes, for example. Go talk to them. Let them know why you want to go to college and what you want to do there. You’ll show a maturity that they’ll appreciate and which will be reflected in the letters you get.

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