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How to get a Harvard-worthy recommendation letter from your high school teacher [Part 1]

by John

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!

Want to attend Ivy League schools? Check out my insider’s course and guide to getting into Harvard, even with a 1360 SAT from a public high school. Comes with 50 ACTUAL apps and essays from students admitted to Brown, Stanford, Harvard, Yale, Princeton and more!

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