4 Tips to get Top Letters of Recommendation for University

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Read Between the Lines – Top Letters of Recommendation for University.

By Dr Daniele Labriola, University Applications Advisor.

You’re finalizing your university applications. You have strong grades in the right subjects, a noteworthy set of extracurricular activities, and some captivating motivational essays. All done, right? Not quite!

Students applying to university can often overlook the importance of getting excellent letters of recommendation for university. Don’t make this mistake.

Standard applications all require detailed school reports (often combined with or otherwise called ‘counselor’s report’) and letters of recommendation.

Done correctly, these letters of recommendation for university offer compelling reasons for a university to accept you; they provide unique insights into what makes you not only a distinguished student but also a person with plenty to contribute both in and outside the classroom.

How can a student ensure that her school report and letters show her in the best possible light? Here are four important tips:

1. How best to choose people to support your application?

When applying to the States, especially, you’ll typically be asked to nominate 2-3 people to write in support of your application. In addition to the school counsellor, these are usually schoolteachers. Some universities might also ask for or accept an ‘other’ recommender, i.e., someone who knows you in a non-academic capacity (mentor, faith leader, sports coach, etc.).

For many students, this leaves open several people to consider. Even in those cases where the student is asked to nominate just 1 or 2 recommenders (this is growingly seen in Europe), certain things ought to be considered before formally nominating someone.

To start, try putting together a long list of possible letters of recommendation for university writers, 4-5 people max. This should be done by May prior to your application submission window (usually September-January of your final year).

Consider who…

(a) knows you best (or could with some help, see ‘2’ below),

(b) can highlight your achievements in several ways and in a very positive fashion.

(c) and is openly supportive of your decision to apply to a given university.

By August, move to short-listing your writers.

(d) Are they schoolteachers in your strongest subject areas with plenty of subject-specific evidence of your abilities?

(e) Do they have a unique angle or memorable anecdote to relay which can help distinguish your application?

(f) How supportive are they? Is their language sincere, colorful, and affirmative?

(g) Can they commit to writing letters within the various deadlines?

This last question cannot be overlooked: universities will usually refrain from fully reviewing an application until all required material is received. You don’t want to lose out on a dream place based on the action (or lack thereof) of someone else.


For a free 30 min consultation with Daniele, get in touch with us at TutorsPlus today.

Dr Daniele Labriola

2. Be proactive, it will make a difference to your chance of success.

Perhaps the biggest mistake a student can make is to think that the reports written by others about them are outside of their control.

This couldn’t be further from the truth!  Don’t presume your letters of recommendation for university writers know everything about you. Often, they have little more than grades (more reports!) and hazy memories to go on.

Try jarring their memories, or, better yet, create new ones. When requesting a letter, make sure that you give them ample context.

Yes, you’re applying to university; but which ones? Where? And why? What are your mid-to-long-term goals, which make applying to university so crucial for you? Lastly, what makes a letter from Writer X so important, in your view?

Concurrently, provide them with a current CV/resume (something worth having, in general!). Show them in a clear and concise document of some of the notable work and experiences you’ve done going back 3-4 years. Encourage them to ask questions about any element of your CV.

If you have application essays ready, offer to share them too. Furnishing this material can really help you, as it motivates a dialogue, encouraging your letter writer(s) to look closely at your specific case. In turn, this usually makes for a more informed and informative account of you.

Note this advice doesn’t just apply to recommenders you select. A school counsellor often needs prompting. A student can help direct the narrative of the counsellor by clearly and succinctly providing their case for university and highlighting their series of academic and extracurricular achievements.


3. Don’t leave it to the last minute!

We discussed a rough timeline above (see ‘1’). As early as May of your penultimate school year you should be thinking about letters of recommendation for university.

Bottom line: the more time you give yourself to selecting your writers, and in turn approaching them, the more likely you are to find a set of writers who are cooperative.

Importantly, by not leaving things to the last minute, you are affording your writers the time needed to carefully compose their letters.

The last thing you want to do is rush them – they are certainly busy doing other things! They will write better, more positive recommendations if they have more time.

4. Keep everyone in the loop

During the application submission window, you provide your writers with everything they could possibly need to know about you in and outside the classroom. But your life doesn’t stop after you hit the ‘send’ button.

These writers might be called upon in future. In particular, your counselor might be required to submit a mid-year (in your final high school year) progress report to select universities who are still reviewing your application.

Accordingly, it’s crucial you keep everyone abreast of any new achievements, academic and otherwise. Keep that CV up-to-date, and don’t slack off at any point during your final school year.

Don’t forget that the work you do post-application-submission can sway an admissions team’s decision in your favour. Don’t be the one to miss out on this chance!


For a free 30 min consultation with Daniele, get in touch with us at TutorsPlus today.


Dr Daniele Labriola
University Applications Advisor

Daniele, BA, UC Berkeley, MLitt & PhD, St Andrews University, has dedicated over 10 years to assisting families and schools, on how best to prepare students for the top tier of higher education.

Dr Labriola’s years in Education have taken him across North America, Europe, and Asia, advising and lecturing on higher education. He has published academic articles, as well as contributed essays on university preparation and application, for various media, including newspapers, journals and government-sponsored education organizations such as the Fulbright Commission.

Here is some additional information on references for UCAS.


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