15 Tips for Securing Strong Letters of Recommendation

By Eric Eng

By Eric Eng

Three students talking to a teacher about berkeley undergraduate requirements

15 Tips for Securing Strong Letters of Recommendation

Securing strong letters of recommendation plays a crucial role in setting your college application apart. These letters offer a unique insight into your character, achievements, and potential, making them pivotal for your college journey.

To ensure you receive impactful endorsements, it’s essential to understand the steps involved in obtaining meaningful letters. This involves identifying the right recommenders, fostering relationships, and communicating your goals effectively. The following sections will guide you through these steps, offering practical tips to enhance your chances of securing strong letters of recommendation.

1. Choose the right recommenders.

Selecting individuals who know you well and can attest to your abilities and character is crucial. Studies suggest that letters from those with firsthand experience of your work and growth can significantly influence admission decisions, making your application stand out in a pool of many.

Group of students talking in a room.

To effectively choose recommenders, target professors, supervisors, mentors, or colleagues who have closely interacted with you. These individuals should be able to provide specific examples of your strengths, work ethic, and contributions, thereby painting a vivid picture of your potential to admissions committees.

2. Build strong relationships.

The foundation of a strong letter of recommendation lies in the relationship between the student and the recommender. Recommendation letters which reflect a deep, personal understanding of the applicant can elevate an application, showcasing the student’s character and potential beyond grades and test scores.

Fostering meaningful connections takes time and effort. Engage regularly with your potential recommenders through academic discussions, project collaborations, or mentorship sessions. This ongoing interaction ensures they have a comprehensive understanding of your qualities and achievements, enabling them to write a more personalized and impactful letter.

3. Ask in advance.

One of the top tips for securing strong letters of recommendation is to approach your chosen recommenders well before the application deadline. This courtesy allows them ample time to craft a thoughtful and detailed letter that highlights your best qualities.

Start the conversation at least two to three months in advance. This timeline respects your recommenders’ busy schedules and demonstrates your organizational skills and consideration for their time. Providing a clear deadline and all necessary materials upfront will further facilitate the process, ensuring a smooth and timely submission.

4. Request recommendations in person or via a personalized email.

Making a personal connection when requesting a letter of recommendation is key. Personalized requests are more likely to result in positive, detailed letters compared to generic inquiries.

Whether in person or via email, express your reasons for choosing them as a recommender, how you value their opinion, and your career or academic goals. This approach not only shows respect but also helps the recommender feel personally connected to your success, motivating them to write a compelling letter.

5. Provide necessary information.

Providing your recommenders with a comprehensive packet of information is essential. This packet should include your resume, transcripts, personal statement, and a list of accomplishments. Such information ensures recommenders have a detailed understanding of your academic and extracurricular background, enabling them to highlight your strengths effectively.

When you hand over this packet, also include any specific instructions or deadlines related to the recommendation process. This step shows your organization and helps your recommenders tailor their letters to best support your application, ensuring they align with your overall application strategy.

6. Highlight specific achievements.

Discussing specific projects, experiences, or skills you’d like your recommenders to emphasize allows for a tailored and impactful recommendation letter. Such letters often provide a more vivid and compelling narrative to admissions committees.

Encourage your recommenders to mention particular achievements that align with the values or requirements of the programs to which you are applying. This might include leadership roles, contributions to community service, or unique projects that demonstrate your talents and character. By guiding your recommenders on what to highlight, you ensure your letters will effectively showcase the breadth and depth of your experiences.

7. Be enthusiastic.

Sharing your passion for the program or opportunity you’re applying to can significantly influence the tone and content of your recommendation letters. Enthusiasm is contagious; when recommenders understand and share your excitement, it reflects in their letters, making them more persuasive and genuine.

a female high school student looking happy

To foster this enthusiasm, discuss your academic and career aspirations with your recommenders, explaining why the program or opportunity excites you and how it aligns with your goals. This dialogue not only enriches your relationship but also equips them with insights to write a letter that resonates with your passion and ambition.

8. Follow application guidelines.

Adhering to the application guidelines is crucial for the smooth processing of your letters of recommendation. Each institution or organization may have specific requirements for submission, such as online portals, direct email addresses, or physical mailing addresses, along with formatting preferences.

Ensure that your recommenders are fully informed about these guidelines well in advance. Providing a clear and concise summary of the submission process helps prevent any confusion or delays. This diligence underscores your respect for both the application process and your recommenders’ efforts, facilitating a seamless recommendation submission.

9. Offer writing guidelines.

While recommenders are experts in their fields, they might not always know the best way to structure a recommendation letter for your specific context. Offering writing guidelines can help direct their letter to highlight the aspects of your personality, achievements, and potential that are most relevant to your application.

A simple outline or a list of points you’d like them to cover can be incredibly helpful. This might include key strengths to highlight, specific achievements or experiences to mention, and characteristics that align with the program’s values. Providing these guidelines ensures that your letters of recommendation are not only strong but also strategically tailored to support your application effectively.

10. Waive your right to read.

Waiving your right to access your letters of recommendation is a move that can significantly boost their credibility. Educational professionals agree that letters written under the assumption of confidentiality tend to be more candid and impactful. This confidentiality can encourage recommenders to share honest, detailed observations of your strengths and potential.

To implement this strategy, indicate on your application or recommendation form that you waive your right to review the letters. This decision demonstrates your trust in your recommenders and your commitment to a transparent application process, qualities that admission committees respect.

11. Include diversity.

A diverse set of recommenders can provide a comprehensive view of your character, abilities, and potential. This diversity extends beyond academic instructors to include supervisors, mentors, and other individuals who have observed you in various capacities.

By carefully selecting recommenders from different areas of your life, you ensure that each letter offers a unique perspective on your personal and professional qualities. For instance, a letter from a volunteer coordinator can showcase your community engagement, while a professor can highlight your academic prowess, together presenting a well-rounded profile to admissions committees.

12. Be polite and grateful.

Expressing gratitude to your recommenders is not only a matter of courtesy but also strengthens your professional relationships. A simple thank-you note or email after they have submitted your recommendation can go a long way in showing your appreciation for their time and effort.

Young woman looking at her phone.

This gesture of thanks is a reflection of your character and professionalism, reinforcing a positive impression. Furthermore, maintaining these relationships can be beneficial for your future endeavors, as you may need their guidance or further recommendations as you progress in your academic or professional career.

13. Follow up politely.

As application deadlines approach, it’s important to ensure that all your recommendation letters have been submitted. However, doing so requires tact to avoid appearing impatient or pushy. A polite follow-up email or conversation can serve as a gentle reminder to your recommenders without straining your relationship.

A week before the deadline, consider sending a brief message expressing your gratitude for their support and gently reminding them of the upcoming due date. This approach helps ensure timely submission and demonstrates your proactive attitude and respect for their time.

14. Maintain professionalism.

Throughout the recommendation process, maintaining a professional demeanor is crucial. This professionalism extends to all interactions, whether in person, via email, or phone. Demonstrating respect, punctuality, and courtesy in your communications reflects positively on your character and helps foster a supportive and respectful relationship with your recommenders.

When making requests or providing information to your recommenders, be clear, concise, and organized. This professionalism makes the process smoother for both parties and ensures that your recommenders have a positive experience, which can be reflected in the quality of their letters.

15. Keep your recommenders updated.

After your application process concludes, keeping your recommenders informed about the outcome is a courteous and important step. Whether you are accepted into a program, receive an award, or decide on a different path, sharing your news shows respect for the effort they put into supporting you.

An update not only serves as a gesture of gratitude but also reinforces your relationship for the future. It keeps your network strong and engaged, which can be invaluable as you continue your academic and professional journey.

How can I identify potential recommenders early?

Identifying potential recommenders early in your academic career involves observing and engaging with those who can provide meaningful insights into your growth and capabilities. Look for instructors, advisors, or professionals who show an interest in your development and with whom you naturally connect. These individuals are likely to provide the most personalized and supportive recommendations.

Start by taking an active role in your education and extracurricular activities. Seek opportunities for mentorship, take on leadership roles, and participate in projects that align with your interests and goals. These interactions can highlight your strengths and dedication, making it easier to identify who might best advocate for your achievements.

What makes a recommendation letter stand out to admissions committees?

A recommendation letter stands out to admissions committees when it provides specific examples of the applicant’s achievements, character, and potential impact on the campus community. Letters that go beyond generic praise to detail personal growth, resilience, and contributions to class or team dynamics offer a compelling narrative of the applicant’s strengths.

Furthermore, letters that reflect a deep, personal knowledge of the applicant, including anecdotes and observations, can significantly enhance an application. Admissions committees value insights into how applicants have overcome challenges, demonstrated leadership, and contributed to their communities, as these qualities are indicative of future success and engagement.

a male student sitting and smiling

How do I balance personal and professional references in my application?

Balancing personal and professional references in your application involves selecting recommenders who can collectively showcase your diverse skills, achievements, and character traits. Professional references, such as teachers and supervisors, can speak to your academic abilities and work ethic. In contrast, personal references, like mentors or community leaders, can highlight your personal qualities, leadership, and impact on the community.

When choosing recommenders, consider the specific requirements or preferences of the program or opportunity you’re applying to. Some may value academic and professional achievements more, while others might emphasize community involvement and personal growth. A well-rounded application typically includes a mix of both, providing a comprehensive view of your capabilities and potential.

What are common mistakes to avoid when requesting recommendation letters?

One common mistake to avoid when requesting recommendation letters is waiting until the last minute. This not only puts unnecessary pressure on your recommenders but also risks compromising the quality of your letters. Another mistake is failing to provide your recommenders with sufficient context about your goals and the specifics of the program or opportunity you’re applying for. Without this information, even the most well-intentioned letter can fall flat, lacking the personalized touch that makes a recommendation truly stand out.

Overlooking the importance of clear and open communication with your recommenders is a misstep. Ensuring they have all the necessary details, including deadlines, submission formats, and your achievements, supports them in writing letters that effectively endorse your candidacy. Remember, these tips for securing strong letters are key to making a compelling case to admissions committees or potential employers.

How can I use recommendation letters effectively in scholarship applications?

Using recommendation letters effectively in scholarship applications involves selecting letters that align with the scholarship’s criteria and goals. For instance, if a scholarship emphasizes community service, a letter from someone who has supervised your volunteer work can be particularly impactful. Tailoring your letters to highlight the qualities and achievements most relevant to each scholarship can significantly boost your application’s strength.

Moreover, informing your recommenders about the specific scholarship and what it seeks in candidates allows them to tailor their letters accordingly. This might include emphasizing your leadership abilities, academic achievements, or personal character, depending on the scholarship’s focus. Effective letters provide a nuanced, detailed portrait of you that complements the rest of your application, enhancing your chances of success.

How can I use digital tools and platforms to request and process recommendation letters?

Digital tools and platforms offer a streamlined and efficient way to request and manage letters of recommendation. Platforms such as Interfolio or the Common Application allow students to send requests, track submissions, and even store letters for future use. This technology simplifies the process for both students and recommenders, ensuring that all parties stay organized and deadlines are met with ease.

Moreover, digital tools often provide templates and guidelines that can help you craft a more effective request. They may also offer tips for securing strong letters of recommendation, ensuring that you communicate your needs clearly and professionally. Utilizing these resources can significantly enhance the quality and impact of your recommendation letters, making your application process smoother.

Unidentified person using a laptop.

Are recommendation letters important for international students?

For international students, recommendation letters play a critical role in bridging cultural and educational gaps. These letters offer admissions committees a deeper understanding of the student’s achievements and potential within the context of their home country’s educational system. They provide valuable insights into the student’s ability to adapt to and thrive in a new academic environment, making them an indispensable part of the application process.

Additionally, recommendation letters for international students can highlight their language proficiency, cross-cultural competencies, and resilience—qualities that are highly valued in a globalized education setting. Given the competitive nature of applications, these letters can be a key differentiator, underscoring the unique perspectives and diversity an international student brings to the campus community.


Securing strong letters of recommendation is a critical step in your academic and professional journey, offering a unique opportunity to showcase your character, achievements, and potential through the eyes of those who know you best.

By carefully selecting recommenders, fostering meaningful relationships, and strategically guiding the content of your letters, you position yourself as a standout candidate. Remember, a compelling recommendation letter can be the difference that tips the scales in your favor, paving the way for your future successes.



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