In prior years, I have spent many hours per student preparing letters of recommendation for each of dozens of former students, consuming weeks of my spare time. Few students realize it, but a good letter of recommendation is as important and takes as much effort as the college application essays that you prepare. I take these letters very seriously, work hard to prepare individualized recommendations, and often customize them for particular colleges where I have a connection. I’m happy to assist students in their application efforts, but the huge investment of time required forces me to set some ground rules.

 1.         Why are you asking me to write letters for you?

 If you found my class to be a memorable experience, I’m delighted. But to prepare a good letter that will actually help you get into the college of your choice, it’s important that you were also memorable to me. Many MV students sit quietly in class, do the work, and get good grades, but that doesn’t mean that I really know anything about them. If the first time I’ve ever really talked with you is when you come to ask for a letter, I won’t know much to put in that letter, so it can’t be strong or insightful; colleges will be unimpressed by it, and that’s not what either of us wants. It’s painfully hard to write a letter like that, and even harder to say “no” to a student who enjoyed my class and asks for a letter, but is not really well known to me. You should use some judgment in picking your recommenders, and be coldly honest with yourself. Ask yourself questions such as these:

                        Was I a frequent volunteer in class?

                        Did I ask questions often?

                        Did I regularly come to tutorial, or drop in outside of class?

                        Did I make any contributions that stand out?

                        Was I active in a club that Mr. Stark advised?

                        Did my other activities provide a connection?

                        Were the things that make me special apparent in class?

                        Does Mr. Stark have a basis to know anything about me beyond my course grade?

 If you can’t answer such questions affirmatively, then you’re asking the wrong teacher. Pick somebody else who can say more about you.

 2.         What do you expect me to say about you?

 If you’re serious about getting into a selective college, you should plan out your applications as if you were marketing yourself, because that’s really what you’re doing. Each piece of your application should show something different and important about you to make an appealing package. Transcripts and essays provide insight for the admissions office, but recommendation letters are most valuable when they show something different and/or something more. Colleges don’t want me to tell them things that are already obvious from the rest of the application, because it doesn’t help them decide whether to admit you or someone else. They want to hear things from me that they can’t get from other sources, and things that distinguish you from others.

 The wise approach is to pick your recommenders based upon what each can say about you, from their personal interactions with you. You should decide on a “spin” that I can use in the letter, to fit in with and complete the whole package presented in your application. What can I say about you that other teachers couldn’t, or that isn’t apparent elsewhere in your transcript or essay?

 To answer that question for me, I need you to write a draft letter for me. I won’t send that draft to the college, but I can deduce from that draft what you want me to emphasize, and what basis you think I have for knowing it. Pick some behaviors or traits that I know about, and support them with some specific events in our shared experiences that illustrate those traits. Figure out what I can say that your other letter writers can’t. Remind me of what sets you apart and how I know that, and let me know what aspects of your personality or qualifications you want me to comment on. Remember that colleges love specifics, personal anecdotes, and concrete examples, and aren’t impressed with platitudes or generalizations. Give me something concrete to work with beyond what I might independently remember.

 3.         Why are you applying to your chosen college?

 I expect you to use some judgment and significantly narrow down the list of schools you will be applying to before you ask me for a letter. Here are some situations that I have faced in the past that I want to avoid:

 a) A student applies to a school for which he/she has little or no realistic chance of admission. This is a waste of everybody’s time. If your application is screened out of the pool based on GPA or SAT scores, nobody will ever read my letter, and it’s not worth the substantial effort to write it. Don’t apply to MIT if you know in your heart you’re not MIT material.

 b) A student applies to a large number of similar schools. Do you really think that Columbia, Penn, Yale, Stanford, Dartmouth, Princeton, and Harvard will all admit you? If so, pick the one you want to attend and apply only there. You should not be collecting admissions as if they were trophies, or something to give you bragging rights among your friends. Be mature about it and make a choice. Otherwise, you’re wasting money, and more importantly, time (yours, mine, and the college’s). If you’re not so confident, do you really think that Columbia, Penn, Yale, Stanford, Dartmouth, and Princeton will say “no”, but through some miracle Harvard might say “yes”? If you’re using the shotgun approach hoping that you might succeed at one school through luck, you need a dose of reality. This is not a lottery. The odds of admission are set by your qualifications, not by the number of applications you submit.

 c) A student applies to a big bunch of schools in the fall, thinking that he/she will make the hard choices in the spring after the admissions letters come back. Don’t burden me or the admissions offices just because you’re indecisive, or your parents are willing to pay for plenty of application fees. Make your choices now, based on where you will truly fit in and be happy. If you don’t know that yet, then do the research before starting your applications.

 To prevent these abuses, my rule is that I will write letters for any one student for no more than four schools (yes, multiple copies for additional common app schools still count against the four). I suggest that you pick one school that you really want to attend, that you think you can get into, and that you will attend if admitted. If you wish, then pick another one or two (probably a bit easier to get into) for back-up that you will be happy at if you don’t get into your first choice, and perhaps a final “safety” school that you’re confident will take you. Don’t bring me a list of four Ivy League schools, and don’t apply anywhere that you don’t really intend to go if accepted. Remember that you can always apply to a few good state schools that don’t require letters and still be assured of getting into a school somewhere that will suit your needs. More than six or seven total applications shows an inability to make choices or an unrealistic view of yourself and the process, and I don’t care to be a part of that game.

I also want comments from you to rank your choices, to describe what attracts you to each school, and to tell me what program(s) you might pursue there. I often write different letters for different colleges (not just one Naviance blanket letter for all), especially if you are applying to a school where I have some contacts.

4.         If after reading all this, you still want me to write letters for you, I will need:

a) your transcript

b) a copy of your college essay(s)

c) the draft letter described above

d) a list of the schools, indicating which is your first choice, which are the back-ups, and which is the “safety”, with your explanation of why you want to go each one and what you might study there

           e) recommendation forms for those colleges

           f) stamped, addressed envelopes to those colleges

g) anything else that might help me write the best possible letter for you that isn’t in the other materials (perhaps a description of career plans, activities, interests, etc.)

h) your signed acknowledgement of my rec letter process

i) a photo of you (a wallet size of your senior picture would do nicely) that I can keep in my files (a few students have included one in prior years, and I really liked that idea, so I'm officially asking for it from now on)

j) a big envelope containing all of the above, with a list of deadlines prominently on the outside.

 The earlier I get these materials, the better the letter is likely to be. In any event, I won’t consider writing a letter unless I have at least a month before the deadline.

 If I get the material on time, I’ll do the very best sales job I possibly can for you in the letters I write!