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How to Get Great Teacher and Counselor Recommendations

Popular thinking among parents and students in college and private school admission is that there are certain things that you can control and certain things that you can’t control. Among the things considered to be outside of your control are recommendations written by teachers and counselors. This incorrect belief starts with the assumption that you should ask for recommendations at the end of the school year prior to the year you apply to private school or college. In fact, if you wait until the end of the year to ask for recommendations, then you do lose control over what is written about you. You will simply ask and wait, and you will never know what your favorite teacher or counselor has written about you until you receive a rejection notice from your top choice school. Even at that point, you will be left wondering why you didn't get in to the school of your dreams, when your grades and test scores were excellent, when your number of community service hours was double the number of required hours, and when you were captain of the tennis team, editor of the school newspaper, and founder of the chess club.

Before you blame your favorite teacher or counselor for undermining your admission candidacy at the school of your dreams by writing a poor recommendation, the answer could very likely be something much less nefarious: they wrote good recommendations, but not great ones. Let me explain. Good recommendations are nice, but they are little more than a pat on the back when compared to a great recommendation. Frankly, you expect a good recommendation when you ask a teacher at the end of the year. And teachers, for their part, rarely write bad recommendations. They more typically write recommendations that say that students are good, great, or one of the best ever. Therefore, typically, good recommendations are the lowest form of flattery. When admissions committees receive good recommendations, they usually wonder more about what is not being said than what has been said. They understand that good recommendations are obligatory, whereas great or “best ever” recommendations are deserved.

So, how do you ask for great recommendations? You do so through your actions, not through your words. You need to prove to your teachers from the first day of class that you are deserving of the words, “one of the best students I have ever worked with.” You need to be a positive influence in class. You need to talk to the teacher outside of class hours. You need to show a real interest in the material being covered in class. You need to take your homework seriously and complete every assignment to the best of your ability. To get a great recommendation, you don't need perfect test scores. You simply must have a perfect attitude.

So, as we come to the end of another school year, you might want to reflect on what you could have done better in school so as to encourage excellent recommendations from your teachers. The fact is that virtually every college and private school considers recommendations to be of paramount importance considering a student for admission. Once again, my very strong advice is to ask for recommendations through your actions, not through your words, beginning on the very first day of class, and continuing throughout the semester or year. Then, toward the end of the year, you can ask your teacher if she would be comfortable writing you a recommendation, but you will already know the answer to that question, because you will have earned an excellent recommendation through your actions.

There is nothing magical about this suggestion, but it does require a slight diversion from the usual thinking. While your teachers are required by their contracts to write a certain number of recommendations each year, they do not always do so happily. Furthermore, they are not obligated to go over a certain minimum number of recommendations. On the other hand, teachers and counselors/advisors are generally not only willing but excited to write recommendations for students who deserve exemplary recognition.

While all this may seem like common sense, the truth is that asking for recommendations is barely given a thought by most students until the end of the year, which may be too late to do the things that actually contribute to excellent recommendations. If your goal is to get excellent recommendations, then you must start the process on the first day of class continue all the way through to the end of the year. If you do this, you will be in a far better position to attain a recommendation that will actually make a difference in your college or private school admission campaign.