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July 3, 2018, by


Plan Your Recommenders Carefully!

You knew you would need great grades in challenging courses, excellent activities to show your commitment to your community, and many hours to prepare for standardized tests. You knew you needed to brainstorm your essays carefully and explain your motivations for taking your next academic step.

But what do many students forget until they are deep into the process? Recommendations!

Just like every other aspect of your application, recommendations should be carefully planned, rather than slapped onto an application as an afterthought.

Identify Your Advocates

The question I always ask students as we brainstorm recommenders is: “Do they love you and think you are brilliant?” We want to avoid the situation where a student is “damned by faint praise.” We need a professor or boss who will really go to bat for the student, writing a letter filled with concrete examples that will support what he or she says in the recommendation.

  •  Who really seemed to understand you and your motivations?
  •  Whom did you connect with?
  •  Who witnessed key growth or overcoming challenges?
  •  What mix of recommenders can you select so the overall impression given across these letters is balanced?

Remind them about your strengths and work!

Once you have identified your key advocates, you need to ask them if they are willing to write on your behalf. This is not a casual conversation to have in passing, but one you need to prepare for carefully. Collect all the information you will need first:

  • Update your résumé so it includes any new experience, and edit descriptions for each previous entry to gear your profile toward your new educational and career goals.
  • Write down key things that your recommender might know about you – your best papers from a class, a report you prepared for your boss that you were especially proud of, or any other accomplishments you wish to highlight.
  • Put yourself in your recommender’s shoes– what examples would you use to back up what you would say?
  • Gather any forms, requirements, and school-specific information. Often very specific things are needed for each recommendation – figure that out before you ask for anything.

Make the Ask!

With all the above prepared, schedule an appointment to meet in person if possible, or draft an email or letter. It’s important to give them an “out” – let them know you would like to meet or discuss a possible recommendation, and you would be honored if they could do it, but also fully understand if they are too busy or otherwise unable. Be respectful of their time and give plenty of advanced notice, and then follow these steps:

  •  First, summarize your academic and professional goals – “I am pursuing law school because…” – and update them on anything you have done since   they knew you.
  •  Second, remind them of your relationship – “Taking your class on American Pop Culture during my sophomore year and ultimately writing my thesis   on television in the 1950s with your advising was central to my undergraduate career because…”
  •  Third, highlight any key work, discussions, or accomplishments that you completed under their guidance.
  •  Finally, give them the nitty-gritty – when is this due, what format is needed, what forms do they have to fill out, and how do they submit?



Of course you will thank your recommenders when you ask them to write, but saying “thank you” shouldn’t end there. Once they have submitted, send a hand-written note thanking them for their guidance and time spent. And, finally, once you hear from schools, send them an update! Let them know where you will be matriculating, and how grateful you are for their support during the process.


What if you are years from applying, and want to make sure you aren’t scrambling later on?


The best thing you can do is cultivate relationships. Go to extra office hours, volunteer to help research or help where you think you could be needed, and don’t get lost in the crowd. Sit in the front seat of class, or turn in the report to your boss days ahead of time. Be proactive rather than reactive.

Then, when you are moving on from a relationship, you can ask a professor or mentor to “bank” a recommendation for you. You don’t have to know your exact path, but you can say that you are thinking carefully about attending graduate school in the future, and you hope they be willing to bank a recommendation for you to access when your plans have solidified and you are ready to apply.

You can meet with them and go over the same points listed above. Many colleges will hold recommendations confidentially for you, and then you can ask your advocate to edit an earlier version, as needed, when it is time to submit..

With planning and preparation, this part of the application process does not need to be stressful!  If you would like to talk to a counselor at Marks Education about choosing recommenders or any other part of your application process, please contact us!

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