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How to Obtain the Best College Recommendation Letters

Throughout four years of high school, you put in a tremendous amount of work to create an excellent college application portfolio. You take – and retake – standardized tests. You write – and rewrite – college admission essays. In other words, dedicated students like you fine tune their applications to match their dream colleges’ expectations. However, there is one part of your application portfolio that’s mostly, but not entirely out of your control:

Your teachers’ recommendation letters.

Yes, these sealed envelopes or confidential online forms contain information that can go a long way in convincing college admissions counselors that you’re a perfect fit. And although you’ll never have the chance to edit, review, or even see what these letters contain, there’s a lot you can do to ensure that your teachers write glowing endorsements of your academic potential and all-around goodness as a human being.

Having been on both sides of the teacher’s desk, let me share my recommendation letter expertise with you.

Why Recommendation Letters Matter

As you know, a lot goes into a college application portfolio. The essential pieces are your grades and standardized test scores. After that, your essays and extracurricular activities allow admissions counselors to see you as a person rather than a set of scores and letter grades.

Last, but certainly not least, come the recommendation letters. They provide a different, fresh, and just as relevant, personal perspective. And since they come from adults who are trained educators, they carry a lot of weight.

And that’s why recommendation letters matter…a lot.

Step #1: Choose Your Teachers Wisely

If you’re an academically gifted student, it’s likely you excelled in the majority of your classes. First of all, good for you. However, having a lot of options raises an issue: which teachers do you pick?

Here’s some all-around good advice:

  • At least one letter should come from a teacher you had during your junior year.
    • Junior year’s the toughest one of all – at least for most students – and a letter from a teacher who had you then can say a lot about how you work under pressure.
  • If you’ve taken AP/IB courses, try to get a letter from one of those teachers, too.
    • Let’s say you excelled in your first AP course and earned a high score on the AP exam, too. Discussing this accomplishment in your personal essay and including a recommendation letter from that teacher would be the perfect combination.

If you struggled in some courses, still consider whether those teachers could write you a good letter. Did you come in for extra help and improve your grades along the way? College admissions counselors love applicants with grit, those who buckled down and invested the time and effort to raise their grades. A turnaround story is just as compelling as a ‘he/she was an academically gifted student’ story.

Step #2: Include an Information Packet

Even if a teacher just had you last year, they may be a bit fuzzy on your personal and academic details. That tends to happen when teachers see 150+ students a day. That’s why when they agree to write you a letter, give them a small info packet detailing your academic and extracurricular accomplishments along with any other information they may need (e.g., a sample of your work from their class) to jog their memories.

Pro Tip: In this packet, include a personal note that discusses what you got out of their class. It never hurts to butter up – compliment – your teacher, too. Just don’t go too overboard.

Step #2.5: Give Them Plenty of Time

Teachers are extremely, significantly, tremendously busy people. They put in a ton of effort, most of which you don’t see. That’s said, please give teachers at least two weeks – preferably three – to write you a recommendation letter.

Step #3: Be Grateful

So, the letters are done and in the physical or electronic mail. As you take that sigh of relief that your college applications are finished, don’t forget about your teachers. It’s time to get them a thank you gift.

Why a gift? Well, besides being the right thing to do, your teachers just did you a HUGE favor. It’s time to show a little gratitude with a gift card or something small that’s in the $10-$20 range. If you’re a bit shy, give it to them just before winter break – that’s when good students like you give gifts to their teachers anyway — and include a personal note thanking them for helping you out.

And when the day comes you get into your dream college or university, please let the teachers who wrote you letters know. It’ll make their day. 🙂

Final Thoughts

Good test scores and excellent grades are a dime a dozen in the college admissions world. Genuine recommendation letters are much rarer and can nudge an application from the ‘waitlist’ to ‘accepted’ pile. Will the letters teachers write for you do this? You’ll never know, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t put in the time and effort to obtain the best letters possible.

So, if you’re a high school freshman, sophomore, or junior, make sure to let your best teachers know they did an excellent job before the school year wraps up. Your teachers will likely remember your kind words…and be more inclined to write you a recommendation letter when you need it. 😉

SPOTLIGHT: Mary Beth Shares Her Daughter’s Journey Applying to Art School

Mary Beth’s daughter Edie is a neighbor and classmate of my daughter.  I’ve watched Edie win countless awards and show her talents on stage as a performer, costumer, graphic designer and visual artist. 

Hi Marybeth, wondering at what point did Edie decide to apply to art school?

In tenth grade Edie was exposed to a lot of arts education outside of school and had access to admissions officers from various art schools. From there she kind of fell into the art school decision.

How many art schools did she apply to and how many of those did she tour? Did she consider being an art major at a liberal arts college or university?

She applied to four art schools and toured five. She had already done summer classes at CalArts and Otis College of Design. She applied to about a third art schools, a third universities and a third liberal arts colleges.

What’s the portfolio process like for art school?

In freshman year the art teacher at her high school told parents to hold on to all of our student’s art to start building the portfolio. Though colleges want to see recent work (second semester Junior year and more recent) it is informative to have past work to see progress as well as draw on past concepts, techniques and interests. 

Were the portfolio requirements the same for each school or did they vary?

Each college does have different portfolio requirements and seem to be indicative of the type of school they are. We attended a College Day offered through Ryman Arts when she was a sophomore. College reps held sessions about their schools. This program was very informative and helped us start to plan what schools would be a good fit for Edie and where we might want to visit. National Portfolio Day is an essential event to attend in junior year if you are considering art school. It is a big event where many art colleges send representatives to look at student portfolios. It isn’t really possible to see to more than a few school reps so going sophomore and junior year helps to get an understanding and make a plan for Spring of junior year or senior year. Some reps at the event may even be able to offer admission based on the quality of the portfolio. Others will critique the work and offer insights to strengthen work and presentation. For example one school was very structured and wanted more technical work – figure drawings and still lives, another school was less structured and was more interested in self guided projects and personal artistic endeavors.

How involved were you and your husband involved in the portfolio process?

My husband and I have art, photography and design backgrounds so we were able to support Edie. We gave her a little feedback on the work she included in her portfolio but she mostly did what she wanted according the advice that admissions officers gave her. We were able to help her with the photography of the work and creating the digital portfolio.

Did you consult an art school advisor? Or did you wish you had?

We did not consult an advisor, we talked directly with the schools at portfolio days, and shared the portfolio with school art teachers and friends who attended the schools she applied to. She had some friends using art school consultants and absorbed a lot of tips they received. Some of the college reps she met at National Portfolio Day stayed in touch and also offered feedback about her work. One college placed a lot of emphasis on presentation and flow of the portfolio. Her high school art teachers were very helpful in making the final choices for that portfolio.

If a student doesn’t have a lot of exposure to art or have opportunity to practice speaking about their art an advisor would be a good route. Also, portfolios are more than just the work! Students have to write about the work-describe their motivations, inspirations, techniques and more.   

How early did Edie start putting together a portfolio?

Most of the work she did for her final portfolio was done independently in late junior and early senior year. A lot of colleges she talked to wanted to see her most recent work and they asked that she didn’t include anything made before junior year. One college even remarked that they could tell class assignments from independent work and stressed how important work outside of class was for a student to show their thinking and individual style.

Has Edie made her final decision yet?

She ended up committing to a university with an film and arts program because she has so many interests in addition to art.

So it sounds like she didn’t want to be limited to art school in the end. Can you take other classes when at art school?

A lot of the art schools that she applied to had cross enrollment programs, for example students at the Maryland Institute College of Art have the option to take courses at Johns Hopkins, and Rhode Island School of a Design students could take classes at Brown but it can be a challenge to go to two different schools. Art schools have very distinct schedules that make it hard for students to cross enroll; RISD classes are six hours long and once a week whereas Brown classes are two hours long and three times a week. It’s difficult to make it all work so Edie decided that it would be better to go to one school with a good art program and similar course schedule than juggling two school’s schedules.

Any parting words?

Edie submitted work to competitions and art programs beginning freshman year. Attending the weekend classes at Ryman Arts and the summer program at CA State Summer School for the Arts gave her much more uninterrupted time to develop her skills. A few hours a week in the high school art class really aren’t enough time to explore media and develop the skills needed to produce a thoughtful body of work. Through these programs she also met a wide variety of professional artists and took trips to studios, museums and offices. All of this helps to develop the eye and builds an understanding for career options.

Competitions such as Scholastic Arts and Writing and YoungArts were good ways to see what work had traction. She didn’t win YoungArts the first year she applied but she gained a lot of skills and knowledge the next year and applied again and won. Awards from these organizations can provide opportunities for financial support and a future network of support.

I’d encourage people to pay attention to the curriculum and personality of each art school. There is a wide variety of approaches and emphases.

Thanks so much this was very helpful! And good luck to Edie!

Negotiating for Financial Aid. Does it Work to Call the FA Office?

I woke up this morning in a cold sweat. I’d just had a nightmare about calling the financial aid office of my daughter’s top school. In reality, I have not made the call yet. But I plan to and I am strategizing just how to do that.

In talking to other parents who have gone through this before me, I’ve learned the following tips: When dealing with financial aid officers, etiquette applies. Always be polite.  Always express your excitement that your student was accepted to their school. Always thank the school for the aid they have already offered.

Introduce comparative offers. Ask if the school could consider matching the offers. If there are no other offers to compare to, then ask if they can offer more aid which might entail explaining your financial situation.

Other advise I have received is to have your child write and call the financial aid office first. If the desire for more aid comes from the student, the school sees the student’s commitment. The parent should also call and email the financial aid office too because most likely the financial aid is based on the parents income and tax return which might need explanation.

Sometimes it’s necessary to have your child’s college counselor email or call on your child’s behalf. You might need as many advocates as possible if a lot of need is required.

The biggest tip I’ve learned is being to leverage offers. In other words, if your child received $5,000 in aid from their first choice school and $25,000 aid from their second choice school, the idea is to call the first choice school and tell them that your child very much wants to attend their college, that it’s the first choice, but they have received a better offer from another school. Then ask if the first school can match that offer. In some cases they may ask you to forward the other offer to them. They may match the offer or up their offer or just leave their offer untouched.

It’s hard enough to get through the application process and the emotion of offers coming in or being denied, but throwing the financial aid into the mix for me is the hardest part.

How to Distinguish Yourself to Your Dream College

Okay, high school juniors, listen up: college admissions season begins in just a few short months. Now is the time to start thinking about how to stand out from the other applicants competing with you for a seat at your dream college.

“But,” you protest, “colleges haven’t even made up their minds about this year’s incoming freshman class. Why worry about next year?”

Well, your buddy (INSERT NAME HERE) just got back from a humanitarian trip to (INSERT COUNTY HERE) where (HE/SHE) helped build a (SCHOOL/HOSPITAL/HOUSE). And you know what, (HE/SHE) wants to go to (YOUR DREAM COLLEGE), too. What have you done lately to better humanity?

Fortunately, distinguishing yourself is a lot easier than flying halfway around the world to do a good deed. In this article, we’ll explore a few ways to make your best qualities and accomplishments shine.

First Things First

What are your best qualities and accomplishments? Get out some paper and brainstorm. Here are some possible categories to get you started:

  • Academics
  • Extracurricular
  • Volunteering
  • Other Community Involvement

Be sure to include ongoing and planned events, not just things you’ve completed in the past. For example, if you’ve signed up to take four APs your senior year, write that down. Colleges love students who excel in APs.

After making your list, I bet you feel a bit better about what you’ve accomplished in high school so far. Also, before we go any further, let me emphasize that despite my joke at the beginning of this article, stop comparing yourself to other applicants. After all, many of those so-called ‘humanitarian trips’ cost their volunteers thousands of dollars and might do more harm than good. Check out Habitat for Humanity if you want to build something for the needy.

Examining Your Strengths

So you have your list of best qualities and accomplishments. Here are some questions to consider at this stage:

  • What is my best strength and accomplishment?
  • How do I brag about myself without sounding arrogant?
  • How do I bring up these strengths in my essay?
    • How do I bring up these strengths if my dream college has a specific essay question?

The answer to the first question is completely up to you. Let me help with the others.

How do I brag about myself without sounding arrogant? How do I bring up these strengths in my essay? 

Arrogance is a deal breaker for college admissions counselors. Bragging or even ‘humble bragging’ can’t seem explicit. The solution to this problem is all about framing your accomplishment or strength within a larger story, or in other words, bury the lead.

For example, let’s say you organized a local blood drive. You wouldn’t want to start your essay with ‘I organized a local blood drive.’ You would begin by discussing an event, such as a natural disaster, that caused a blood shortage. You would then transition to feeling compelled to do something. Finally, you would discuss the steps you took to organize the blood drive and the positive results it had, such as a how many pints of blood were donated that day.

How do I bring up these strengths if my dream college has a specific essay question?

At first glance, an assigned essay question or prompt may not seem like a vehicle for your positive qualities to shine. However, just like any piece of personal writing, there are always ways to insert yourself into the story. Let’s look at two examples:

What historical moment or event do you wish you could have witnessed?

At face value, it doesn’t seem like you could talk up your accomplishments. But let’s say that you’re a history nerd, and you’re taking honors or AP U.S. history this year. Use this prompt as a way to bring up a paper/test/presentation/project/etc. where you excelled.

Are we alone?

Again, another ambiguous question that inspires thoughts of slimy extraterrestrials rather than your accomplishments. For the science geeks reading this question, this one is for you. Discuss your best biology/chemistry/physics class experiments and projects that lend towards your discussion of the possibility of life beyond Earth.

In summary, the key to answering these and other odd prompts is to gradually make the answer about you. You won’t be great at this right away; that’s why you need to have an adult, hopefully one of your teachers, critique your essay’s first draft.

Did You Overcome Adversity?

I know that adversity can be a private and sensitive subject. If you went through something traumatic or painful in the last few years, you might not want to discuss it with someone you’ve never met. However, explaining these life experiences in your essay puts your accomplishments (or lack thereof) in a whole new light. They complete a picture that college admissions counselors need to see before they make a final decision about your application.

Another reason that you might include adversity as part of your essay involves a single word: perseverance, a trait that all colleges and universities want to see in their applicants. So if you have that kind of story to tell, make sure that you tell it in your essay.

How myKlovr Can Help

If you need extra assistance listing and categorizing your accomplishments, consider downloading the myKlovr app. The app’s digital portfolio can help you keep track of this and other important information which will make the college admissions process less stressful.

Final Thoughts

In an applicant pool where just about everyone has good standardized test scores and a boatload of honors/AP courses, your college essays are THE WAY the distinguish yourself from the pack. And though you may not yet know your essay prompts, reviewing your accomplishments now will make your essays shine just a bit brighter than those of your competition.

So shine on, college applicants, shine on.

How to Support Your Child with Senioritis

In the dictionary, Senioritis is described as, “a supposed affliction of students in their final year of high school or college, characterized by a decline in motivation or performance.” It’s the word “supposed” that makes me laugh. Because when I asked my senior daughter to describe Senioritis, she said, “Teachers should acknowledge that second semester of senior year is exhausting and they should give us a break. Teachers think Senioritis is a joke and they get angry at it.”

After doing four performances of her high school musical this weekend, two months of after school and Saturday rehearsals, debates on alternative weekends, college applications, SAT’s, college essays, and keeping up a full load of honors classes there is not much left of her. And the thought of not knowing where she will be attending school next year, where she will be living, knowing she will be away from family and friends is only adding to the stress.

These seniors are mentally and physically exhausted. As juniors they were told by college counselors to keep up the rigor in senior year. That colleges don’t want to see you taking easy classes. So in my daughter’s case, this year has been one of her toughest academically. “I thought senior year was supposed to be fun,” she often says. From my point of view, this year as been anything but. There are fun things ahead; a senior class trip, Prom, yearbook day, graduation, but even those events have deadlines and inherent pressures.

And what about the parents? Aren’t we entitled to a bit of Senioritis too, or how about Parentitis? I don’t know about other parents with seniors, but I am exhausted. The journey to college has been constant, stressful, emotional and unnerving at times. I cannot wait to have this all behind us and hope my daughter winds up in the perfect college for her in the perfect dorm with the perfect roommate. But I know perfection is not possible and only imagine there will be lots of hands on counseling from afar next year.

So maybe Senioritis is a “supposed affliction” and not acknowledged by teachers. But it’s real in my house. And how best to support my daughter when I don’t have many reserves left? As my fiend, Gwen said in last week’s blog, “I tried to keep things calm and light and make sure she was never late, had everything she needed and was fed and watered.” Thanks, Gwen, I will be applying those ideas to help get us through the rest of this year. At least fed and watered I can handle.

There’s a Cowboy College? Rope Me In!

Vanity Fair recently wrote a piece about Deep Springs College, but I had heard about this school years ago. Deep Springs is a small two-year college that takes only thirteen boys a year and guides them through an intellectual and physical journey. It’s tuition free and the students pay for their room and board by working on a cattle ranch. They are taught by professors from Yale and Berkely and most often transfer to an Ivy League university for their junior and senior years. And only the students who score within the top one percent on the SAT’s will get in.

Elite cowboy training. So what’s the point?

Founder, Lucien Lucius Nunn in 1923 said, “The desert has a deep personality; it has a voice. Great leaders in all ages have sought the desert and heard its voice. You can hear it if you listen, but you cannot hear it while in the midst of uproar and strife for material things.”

Deep Springs trains leaders and thinkers. According to Vanity Fair, some include, “ambassador to the United Nations William J. vanden Heuvel; famed CBS newsman Charles Collingwood; Virginia congressman Jim Olin; top internet entrepreneurs and edgy novelists William Vollmann and Peter Rock.”

The combination of nature and academics rings true to some of the values of a Waldorf education. My kids went to Waldorf schools, so Deep Springs resonated with me. With so much technology in these kids’ lives, working with their hands on the land seems more important than ever. Teens being constantly plugged in, the days of day dreaming are over.

To spend two years in the dessert unplugged with blue horizons to read and think and wonder could be the best thing for our kids. So how come there aren’t more schools like Deep Springs out there?

With some digging I found College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine. A small college of 350 students with an emphasis on human-ecology which is, “the investigation of the relations between humans and their environments.”

Here’s a list of the Best Outdoor Schools in America. Although none of them except, College of the Atlantic, come close to Deep Creek.

I know Deep Springs will not be on my son’s college list, but it does make me think that perhaps he should look elsewhere besides a city school. I’m wondering if there might be summer programs that can supply him with a similar experience. If nothing else, it has inspired me to take my kids on a long hike in the hills this afternoon. We’ll unplug for awhile and talk about ideas. And maybe I’ll hint at a college not surrounded by skyscrapers.

Charting Your Educational Path

Today is Columbus Day, and if you have the day off from school, good for you. A lot of high school students don’t, so enjoy your free day. But since you have some time on your hands, let’s talk Columbus, or more specifically, his first journey 525 years ago. Columbus, despite all his promises to the Spanish monarchy, had little to no idea what was he was doing when he set sail. In fact, if the winds hadn’t been favorable, he and the crews of the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria would never have made it back home.

Columbus was unsure about a lot of things.

I bet you’re unsure about what this year of high school will bring. Thoughts of college convey the same sense of trepidation, only magnified. Like Columbus, will you make it there? And even when you ‘arrive,’ will your destination be the one you intended? So on this Columbus Day, let’s examine your educational path. Our goal will be to help you create the outline of a map charting your journey to college.

After all, I bet Columbus sure wished he had a map in 1492.

Step One: Determine Where You Are

You can’t figure out where you’re going unless you know where you are. That means sitting down to evaluate everything that makes you, well, you. Here are some questions to get you started:

  • What are my interests and passions?
  • What is one thing that makes me unique?
  • If I could change one thing about myself, what would it be?
  • If I could not take one subject in school, what would it be?
  • How have I performed academically in high school so far?
  • Am I enjoying my extracurricular activities?
  • Am I taking an active role in my community?

The answers to these questions will help you create a small, personalized student profile. You’ll have to face a few hard truths, but there will undoubtedly be reasons to pat yourself on the back, as well. No matter what you discover about yourself, you will have taken the first step of your educational path.

Step Two: Decide Where You Want to Go

Deciding to go to college is a big step, but after that, you have to find your dream school. With literally thousands of options, the choices can feel overwhelming. If you’re going to ‘set sail’ for college, you must pick a direction.

By completing step one, you already have a powerful tool at your disposal. For example, by identifying your likes and dislikes, you can write off many colleges due to their course offerings or campus culture. Your academic performance plays another significant role. If you’re a junior who has struggled academically, it’s doubtful that an Ivy League or ultra-competitive school will accept you.

The point is that you’re looking for a college that works not for your parents, not for your peers, but for you. And since applying to college is competitive just about everywhere, you need to choose 4-6 possible colleges where you would be perfectly happy. Make sure your list has the following:

  • One reach school (<20% chance of admittance)
  • Two to three maybe schools (40-70% chance of admittance)
  • One safety school (>90% chance of admittance)

In short, cover your bases. To get you started, here are some key self-reflection questions:

  • Which colleges offer majors in the subjects in which I’m interested?
    • Are these programs well-respected? What are current and former students saying? Where do graduates end up working or go on to graduate school?
  • Do I want to stay close to home or explore a new part of the country?
    • This may seem like a trivial question, but your future school’s location will have a large impact on your life outside the classroom.
  • Why do I like ‘College A’ over all the others?
    • Self-reflection can help you identify other colleges similar to the one you prefer the most.

Step Three: Chart a Course

So you know where you’re going. That’s great! Don’t know how to get there? That’s okay! We’ll figure it out together.

Get out your list of potential colleges and universities. For the moment, ignore the ‘maybe’ and ‘safety’ schools. To chart your educational path, we’re aiming for the top of the list. Everything you do from here on out will make you attractive candidate to that one school.

Why shoot for the moon? Easy. Even if you don’t make it into your top-choice school, you will make yourself the best applicant you can be to all the schools to which you will apply.

Let’s dive into our final set of questions to help you chart your course:

  • Are my standardized test scores comparable to what this college expects of its applicants?
    • If not, how can I improve my scores?
  • Are my classes challenging me?
    • Colleges love applicants who take rigorous courses. (I cannot overstate this enough.)
  • How can I set myself apart from thousands of other applicants?
    • For example, if your dream college promotes community service, you can set yourself apart in your application by promoting the community service you performed in high school. (e.g., Make it the topic of your personal essay. Write about how you went above and beyond!)

Final Thoughts

Well, loyal readers, I hope I’ve given you some tools to help you start your academic journey to college. There’s a lot to do, so don’t be shy about going to your parents, teachers, and college counselors for advice or help. Yes, adults are very busy, but the one’s who offer their help will have the best advice.

Finally, may calm seas and good winds bless your journey.

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