How to Get an Outstanding Letter of Recommendation... Even if You Don't Currently Have a Great Relationship With Any Teachers
This blog is full of ideas and advice about writing successful college essays — yet one concept I always emphasize is that your recommendations matter at least as much as your essays.
You can say anything you want about yourself... So colleges are very interested in what your teachers have to say about you.
One admissions officer I know ever told me that a great letter of recommendation will get you moved up "a whole half-step" in the pile. Meaning an amazing letter of recommendation won't necessarily get you from "Rejected" to "Accepted," but it can get you from "Rejected" to "Waitlisted," or from "Waitlisted" to "Accepted."
That's why, in The Two Biggest Mistakes Seniors Make on Their College Applications, I named "submitting good recommendations" as a mistake.
Your recommendations need to be great.
Sometimes, that requires extra time and effort. For example, I had a student once whose best recommender didn't speak English — so she asked the teacher to write the recommendation in Chinese, then send the document to an objective translator, who sent the original with a notarized translation to the student's Early Action university.
Sometimes, that requires being explicit with a teacher about why you are recommending them. "I know I only had you for one semester, but I'm asking you because I know you can speak to my [trait you want to emphasize] and [theme of your application]. I actually saved one of my graded papers from you, because you wrote on it that it was one of the top Gatsby papers you've ever seen."
It's not pushy. It's actually really helpful.
But for students who have missed out on opportunities to get to know their teachers well — whether due to shyness or extracurriculars that keep them out of school or depression (See also: How to Get Good Grades in High School, Even When You're Depressed) or any other reason — it's never too late.
Obviously I have a conflict of interest, because Paved With Verbs is my company and Oxford-Style Tutorials is a service I am offering...
But if I were a senior and I had no idea whom to ask for a recommendation, because I knew none of my teachers knew me well enough to write an outstanding recommendation, I would sign up for an Oxford-Style Tutorial immediately — even if that meant I had to stop studying for the SAT.
You're not going to stand out by bringing up your SAT score by another 10 or 50 points. 70% of Stanford applicants with a perfect SAT score still get rejected — and with COVID-19, many colleges aren't even asking for SATs this year.
But you cannot get into a top school without at least one amazing recommendation.
I won't lie — Oxford-Style Tutorials are hard. They consist of weekly, one-on-one meetings, meaning you can't bullshit your way through class. But if you're willing to put in the 1-3 hours of reading every day and write an insightful reflection about them each week, you can build a deep intellectual relationship with a graduate student, postdoc, or even professor in a very short time period.
Moreover, the course will be collaboratively designed around your specific talents and interests. It's good to take challenging courses in school — but it's awesome to play an active role in deciding what you learn and how.
Think about it: hundreds of thousands of students have taken AP Fill-in-the-Blank...
But how many have taken Edible Plants of Northern California: A Historical, Archeological, and Culinary Exploration?
How many have taken Mosquito: A Human History of Our Deadliest Predator?
How many have taken Synthetic Biology and Foreign Policy?
How many have taken Glamping: A History (And Future)?
I don't think the reason you apply for a tutorial should just be to get a recommendation — you should apply because you love learning.
But if you love learning and you are willing to put in the work, you could walk away from this with an excellent and unique recommendation.
Want to know more? Contact me or fill out this form:
Eva Glasrud completed her B.A. and M.A. at Stanford. She is now a college counselor and life coach for gifted youth.