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Today we’re going to discuss possibly the most overlooked part of any great college application.

High school seniors spend tens, hundreds of hours writing and re-writing and re-re-writing their essays. They pay editors to read them, friends to review them, parents to argue and deliberate with.

They spend hundreds if not thousands of dollars on test prep classes for SAT and ACT, subject tests and AP, hundreds of hours doing practice problems and mock exams and taking and re-taking the official tests.

Then they spend 30 minutes asking a teacher for a recommendation letter. Yet this is one of the KEY components of any elite student’s application, one of the things that adcoms at Ivy League schools read and review VERY closely, and yet it receives a tenth or a hundredth of the time of every other component of your app.

It’s ridiculous!

Your rec letters/letters of rec/teacher recommendations deserve the SAME amount of time, effort, thought, and planning that go into every other part of the Common App. What can separate two equally strong candidates – with top tier test scores, great extracurricular interests, leadership, and solid essays, is the recommendation letters. After all, you can have almost the same resume as another student in the world, but it’s rare that your letters of rec will be even close to similar.

So how do you go about becoming a recommendations-requesting ninja? In this two part series, we’ll explore the necessary steps to ensure you’re truly doing EVERYTHING you can to support a bad-ass rec letter which will stand out among the untold piles come app reading time.

First, identify your targets. I don’t mean this in a bad way, but think very carefully about who you want to write your letter. Ideally, they should know you well, have taught you in one if not multiple classes, have some sense of your extracurricular activities if not worked directly with you on them, and be someone who genuinely LIKES you (hopefully you can tell!). If you need two letters, then the ideal recommenders should also complement each other!

It’s perfectly fine to have an initial discussion with several teachers to see who would be the best fit. You might feel awkward about doing this, but you won’t feel awkward when you get that acceptance letter to Princeton!

How would such a conversation go? One way is to stay after class for a few minutes, and simply ask this:

“Mrs. Gonzales, I’m applying to colleges this fall and I’m trying to figure out who I ask to write my letters of recommendation. Would this be something that you could do for me? In particular, I’m looking for a recommender who can speak to X, Y, and Z in my application.”

Their reply will tell you a lot. If they’re enthusiastic, if they sit you down and ask you questions about the process and about your target schools and your hopes and dreams, if they start bringing up specific examples of your relationship, then they’re a good candidate.

If, on the other hand, they simply nod and say “sure, I can do that,” and then move onto another student, or if they have cold body language, or if anything feels weird/wrong/off in your interaction, then make note of that and come back to it later. Trust your gut here. You hold the power, not them! At the very least, they should want to talk more about it, even if that particular moment isn’t the best time. It’s like dating: if neither of you wants to spend more time with each other, then it won’t be a good relationship.

In the next essay, part 2, I’ll talk about how you choose your recommenders, what materials you give them, how you interact with them, and pro-tips for ensuring you’ve done everything you can to get a Stanford-worthy rec letter!

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I hope everyone is doing well as you prepare for college admissions season! Here are our 10 most read essays over the past year:

1. Low GPA? 3 tips on how to get into Ivy League schools [link]

This coming summer, take college classes in topics which you’re clearly interested in. The key is that you must do well. It’s a bonus if those classes fit into your “broader story” – for instance, if you have a passion for medieval history, take a class on Renaissance Philosophy.

2. How to get into Harvard in 30 minutes [link]

It’s more important to show a CORE STRENGTH than to be part of the Math, Debate, French, Acting, and Creative Writing clubs. Not only will you get zero sleep and hate your life, but spreading yourself too thin is frowned upon by Harvard and other Ivy League admissions committees. Find one, or at most two, areas that you love, and really focus your efforts there – get a leadership position; find national competitions and help your school participate in them; and so forth

3. Why a 4.0 high school GPA and 2400 SAT won’t get you into Harvard [link]

Top 5% is great at good high schools like Thomas Jefferson, Stuyvesant, TAMS, Whitney, etc – but is not the best at smaller high schools in Middle America. As with everything I say here, take it with a grain of salt – if your school only has 200 students and has only sent 1 to Wharton in the past 5 years, being top 5% will NOT be enough

4. How to get into Stanford – the value of being a maverick and playing sports [link]

Stanford is different as well in that it’s the only school of its caliber on the West Coast and in addition has a rich history of fostering entrepreneurship, risk taking, and has a close affiliation with Silicon Valley.

5. 5 Secrets Of Ivy League Admissions [link]

Connect with friends or people you’ve met that go to your target schools. You can talk about these conversations in your essays and college admissions interviews, and you’ll learn more about the university during the process

6. How Ivy League schools look at your high school extracurriculars [link]

Harvard’s admissions committee hates it when they see that a student has been in 3 different clubs each year, or his most important commitments were all for very short periods of time. It demonstrates a capriciousness and lack of commitment, and makes Ivy League schools wonder whether this student is serious or simply in it to build his resume.

7. 7 Steps To Get Into Stanford [link]

The third thing that the Stanford admissions committee really looks for is leadership. Every Ivy League school cares about leadership, but Stanford is unique in that it really wants all of its students to be leaders among their peers. They especially want leaders in areas that the students are really passionate about.

8. How to get into Wharton and the University of Pennsylvania – the power of business and international exposure [link]

Number one, they really like students that have a demonstrated interest in business. It really doesn’t matter where your interest in business comes from. They want to know that in general you see yourself building a career within the corporate world

9. How To Write An Amazing Resume For Your Common App [link]

Make sure to ALIGN your paragraphs, DOUBLE CHECK for spelling errors, use BULLETS where appropriate, and keep FORMATTING of dates and titles consistent. Make it look like a truly professional resume.

10. Five last minute tricks to get into Harvard and Princeton [link]

Be extremely busy in your last summer before senior year. College admissions officers look at this summer very closely to see how you spend your time. What are you really passionate about? MAKE SURE you spend time developing those interests in productive ways

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