It's good to have great recommendations for your college applications, which means, of course, you must ask teachers who will have good things to say about you to write for you, but...if those teachers don't write well—even if they have great things to say—it will not be helpful to your application.
What! All teachers are not good writers? Yes, it's true. So how can you assure that you get the best recommendations to send in with your college application? First, you should understand what goes into a good recommendation.
Parts of a Good Recommendation
The introduction: The recommender will introduce him/herself and tell how s/he knows you.
Advice - It's good to have recommenders who have a little status or a title like department head, head coach, Ph.D., etc. Also it helps if the recommender has known you for a while, perhaps having had you in more than one class or also advised you in an activity. If the recommender is your teacher for just your senior year, it's best to ask for the recommendation toward the end of the year so that teacher has some experience with you and your work.
Part 2: In this section the recommender should write to your academic standing and accomplishments, e.g., awards, recognitions, unusual presentations or projects. This part can be rounded out by writing about your participation, your standing among classmates, and your initiatives: extra work, independent research, working with other students or teachers.
Advice - Make sure you are asking a teacher who has, indeed, witnessed you as a good participant, and, if you have gotten recognition in subjects other than what your recommender has taught, let him/her know about it. Obviously, too, the above suggests that you should undertake some things like independent research or working with other students throughout a class so that your recommendation will shine.
Part 3: The third section is about your character: your work ethic, your willingness to share in class, your approach to learning, your ability to collaborate, your energy and interest, etc. This part is augmented by adding information about your out-of-class/community/sports involvement.
Advice - You can be proactive by making yourself a good subject for a recommendation, but it is also a very good idea to give the recommender an informal resume that would let him/her know all that is pertinent about you. Don't be afraid to include as much as you can; it won't be bragging, just showing all sides of yourself. But, think long and hard about your accomplishments and ask others to help add to this list for your resume so you won't forget things or leave things out because you thought they were too unimportant. And, the recommender will actually be grateful so s/he won't have to wrack his brains about you while doing 25 others students' recommendations!
Last Part: The recommendation ends with an overall statement that recommends you to the college.
Advice - It's a good idea to give your recommender an idea about the kinds of schools you are applying to or at least what area of study you think you're going into. Then the recommender can tie together your skills and interests to the college(s) and program(s) you are applying to.
The Devil's in the Details
Most importantly, as well as covering all the parts listed above in full, a good recommendation is detailed and gives specific examples. This means the better the teacher, coach, counselor, etc. knows you the more s/he can write about you. And, that resume you hand to a recommender can certainly help. Finally, you do have to distinguish yourself in general throughout the school so that you will have a good potential list of recommenders to choose from when it comes time.
To see a good recommendation letter, go to CollegeBasics' sample recommendation.
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