Letters of Recommendation

Depending on the type of college program you are considering, you may be asked to include letters of recommendation with your application. Letters of recommendation are a common requirement at traditional, 4-year colleges and for most master's degree programs.

If you're applying for a certificate program or a trade school program, admissions departments may be more interested in your work experience than the opinions of your former teachers. These schools might specifically ask for a recommendation from your current employer. Or, they may be satisfied with just a resume and a brief essay.

Start Early

If you are required to provide letters of recommendation, it's a good idea to start thinking about them early. Of all the elements in a college application, letters can take the longest to gather and submit. You should allow at least 2 months from any college deadline. Your referees will appreciate the generous timeline.

Locate Qualified Referees

Make a list of people who you think would write good letters. If you need 2 or 3 letters, your list should include 4 or 5 people, in case several of them decline. Letters of recommendation can be written by anyone who knows you well — so long as he or she is not a relative. Referees should be individuals you've personally worked for, or studied under — like employers, coaches or teachers. They'll need to relay firsthand testimony about your attitude and abilities in order to persuade committees that you're a worthwhile candidate.

Request Recommendations in Person or Over the Phone

Once you've chosen a few appropriate referees, make appointments to go and visit with them. If geography prevents you from having a sit down meeting, schedule a phone call. You should avoid asking for recommendations via e-mail. Why? Remember that you're asking someone to take time from his or her day to help you with a personal favor. You should be willing to invest a bit of your own time in the conversation and preparation.

Be Polite About "No" Answers

Some people will say no to your request for a letter. Don't get discouraged or take the refusal personally. Many times, people are self-conscious about their ability to write a formal letter. Many people are simply overwhelmed with work, and they'd rather not jeopardize your deadline. Whatever the reason, it's important to be gracious and to thank the person anyway. He or she may become a professional contact at some point down the road.

Remind Referees of Your Strong Suits

Make sure your referees have good examples to cite. Sure, Mr. Smith is your favorite teacher, but he has lots of other students. It doesn't hurt to remind him of the projects you mastered while in his class. You might also remind him of specific instances where you stood out and did well under his guidance. It's okay to suggest these points — since teachers and coaches tend to forget — but don't be overbearing about what you expect the letter to say. At the end of the day, you have to trust in your referee's voice.

Supply Some Background Information

If you've been out of high school for 10 years, your old football coach might have trouble writing a letter on your behalf. Help your referees by providing a bit of background information about where you're applying to school, why you're applying, and what you've been up to in recent years. You should also try to supply a good range of references. For example, if your high school football coach knew you 10 years ago, you might want to seek a letter from a more recent contact — like a current colleague or a client.

Explain the Letter Sending Process

In the past, schools would ask applicants to supply their letters of recommendation in sealed envelopes, with the referee's signature written across the seal. This was to prevent applicants from tampering with letters. Today, many schools prefer online applications. They may receive letters of recommendation through an online portal, which requires referees to log in and upload their letter as a Word document. Make sure you're clear on what your referees need to do (either online or with a hard copy letter), and explain it clearly.

Supply Any Necessary Materials

If your school still accepts hard copy letters, you should supply all the necessary forms, envelopes and postage. Don't expect referees to print any paperwork off your school's Web site, or stop at the post office to pay for your mail. The process should be as quick and convenient as possible.

Ensure the Letters' Receipt

If your application asks you to include the letters with your other materials, you'll know they've been completed when you receive them in the mail. If, however, the directions ask referees to send the letters directly to the school, or if the letters are supplied online, you might not know when/if they've been received. Call the admissions office at your school to make sure all materials are in their possession. If they are still missing one or more of your letters, it's okay to remind your referees about the pending deadline. Be calm and polite when you contact them. If they've changed their mind, you should have enough time to contact the next person on your list.

Write a Thank You Note

When all is said and done, take a few minutes to compose a hand-written thank you. Thank you notes are a nice way to acknowledge any favor, and people appreciate them more than informal e-mails. Your thank you also serves as a professional courtesy. That referee will be more inclined to write a recommendation for the next student or employee he encounters if his experience with you ended on a positive note.

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