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College 101

What Makes a Good Recommendation Letter (and what makes a crummy one)
Article Type: Checklist

Quick quiz:

Who would you rather be friends with?

a)     This guy we knew once from 5th grade sleep-away camp who had Star Wars sheets and ate his boogers. (Then again, the nerds—bad habits and all—are the alpha males of the 21st century so…)

b)    This other person who is awesome all the time and never makes a mistake and makes sure that everyone knows about it and is who your parents think is a god and will compare you to for the rest of your life.

c)     This girl who has varied interests, talents, strengths and is challenging herself to grow and makes you look good just by standing next to her even though you know she is way too cool for you.

d)    Friends take too much time away from Xbox.

The point here is obvious. We want to be friends with interesting people. They make us cooler. College admissions committees want to admit students whom they feel like they know, and who are interesting. A great letter of recommendation won’t be a vague description of you as a student, or even worse, simply list your GPA and classes—that’s what a transcript is for.

The Ultimate Letter of Recommendation will:

___ Show the reader that the person writing the letter knows you well and has interacted with you over a period of time—strictly in a professional setting.

___ Provide insight into your personality and character instead of simply listing accomplishments (although some insights—your tendency to be a chatterbox, your successful stint in rehab—can be left out).

___ Analyze ways you have challenged yourself and outline the strengths you have drawn on to overcome those challenges and grow. In other words, make you sound better than you know you are.

___ Use specific, result-oriented details to illustrate statements made about you.

___ Talk about your skills that will matter in college (hint: not lacrosse/cheerleading/yearbook) like class participation, organization and follow-through, reaction to adversity, and the ability to sleep sitting straight up in a chair throughout that adversity.

___ Hint at your potential and your future. What can the college expect to see from you (and your parents’ copious amount of money)?

___ Mention your recommender's qualifications. Accolades from a teacher with a PhD and 25 years of experience will hold more weight than one in their second year of teaching (unless of course the teacher is Bill Gates or someone who fulfilled a lifelong dream of teaching after building schools for girls in Somalia, starting her own bank, and representing her state in the U.S. Senate).

___ State that you would make great contributions to the college or university (and what a generous alumnus you’d make…)

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