There are two parts of most college applications that you can still influence: your essay (or personal statement) and the letters of recommendation. It might seem strange to include the letters since you don’t actually write them, or even see them, but by asking the right person(s), you can make an important impact on your application. Here are some tips:
Make sure you are following the guidelines on the college application. If they require a teacher and counselor letter, be sure you have at least those two before you add any more. (And check to see if they even allow more!) If you don’t have the required letters, it can hurt your application.
When asking a teacher, ask someone who knows you best. If you sat in the back of the classroom and never participated, even getting an A in the class isn’t going to get you a great letter. A teacher who knows you well might be someone who helped direct your science project over several months; or helped produce the play in which you played a major role. Unless specifically stated in the application, it doesn’t have to be someone you had in the classroom.
Did you struggle in a class and put in extra effort to get a good grade? That teacher may write the best letter for you-they can write about your determination and effort which can be a compelling story about a commitment to your studies.
Whichever teacher you ask, provide him/her with a “resume”- a list of your activities, some highlights of your experiences with that teacher (or that special project you worked on) and information on your academic profile so they can provide a complete picture of you to the college. Also provide them with a deadline by which the letter is due – 2-4 weeks advance notice is minimum. It’s your responsibility to make sure the letter is on time, so a friendly reminder a week or so before the deadline is wise.
If you provide an additional letter, be selective about who you ask. Admissions committees have a great deal to read; adding more they didn’t ask for could work against you and several more won’t even be read. If you held down a job or volunteered, and your employer knows and likes you, that’s very different from your academics and can provide a new perspective that can add dimension to your application.
Don’t try to impress a committee with letters from “influential” people who don’t genuinely know you. A family friend or business colleague who might hold an impressive title or political office, but never worked with you directly, has almost no impact on your application.