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How to Get Great Recommendation Letters for Your College Application

If you’re like most high schoolers, it’s entirely plausible that your greatest career accomplishment so far is something along the lines of, “I once survived a 10-hour shift at Taco Bell and only got two third-degree burns from the deep fryer.” And that’s totally fine—in fact, we’re impressed (a lesser person would have gotten five burns at LEAST). But it might leave you feeling a bit panicked when it comes to requesting a recommendation letter from your boss; after all, a college acceptance committee might not be blown away by the fact that you’re an extremely proficient maker (and eater) of Cheesy Gordita Crunches (obviously an oversight on their part).

Fortunately, most colleges don’t really care about work experience; as long as your GPA and standardized test scores are within their accepted range, they’re more than happy to take rec letters from youth group leaders, directors of extracurricular clubs, and especially teachers. So don’t fret if the extent of your professional experience is “not spilling more than 3 Baja Blast beverages per week”—here are a few simple steps to get you top-notch recommendation letters.

1. Ask teachers early, and ask the ones who like you the most.

If you go to a larger high school, make sure you don’t wait until the last minute to ask your fave teacher for a rec—they’re probably cranking out dozens of letters for your fellow students and Taco Bell co-workers, and you don’t want them to be burnt out and frustrated by the time you roll up with your request.

Relatedly, make sure you’re discerning when it comes to which teachers you ask; sure, Gandalf would probs write Pippin an adequate recommendation, but Treebeard would write a GREAT one. Maybe you’ve got a higher grade in your math class than you do in history, but if you have a better relationship with your history teacher, go with them.

2. Give them an idea of what you want them to say.
Most colleges don’t want/allow you to look at your rec letters, so you won’t have an opportunity to to read through them and ask your teacher for changes. That said, you can give them some suggestions beforehand, and they’ll probably appreciate having a specific jumping-off point. If it’s important to you to show off your work ethic and your creativity, then mention those things to your teacher, and maybe give them a few examples of when you really embodied those traits.

3. Remind them (POLITELY) about deadlines.
Most of your college app is under your control: you get to turn in the essays, the personal information, and the finances when they’re due. Once you ask your referrers to write their recommendation letters, though, that part of your application is completely out of your hands. Unlike you, your gracious referral writers have adulting to do and a ton of other student recommendations to send in, so it’s entirely possible that your letter might drift to the bottom of their priorities list. It’s up to you to give them plenty of time to complete it, and to make sure they know when it’s due—and it can’t hurt to deliver deadline reminders with a good attitude, a genuine smile, and maybe a few (dozen) tacos.