We attended an admissions information session at Columbia University this summer and got insider’s information from an admissions officer, who had completed his undergraduate studies at Columbia. Some of his most insightful advice was about letters of recommendation, and we’re paraphrasing them here with some additional tips and revisions geared toward transfer applications.
Ask professors that like you. That sounds very obvious, but many students think that it’s okay to just ask any professor that gave them an A in class. A professor that likes you is more likely to write a thoughtful, compelling recommendation letter.
Ask the professor if he/she would be comfortable writing a positive letter about you. Don’t simply accept “yes” when you ask a professor if he/she is willing to write a letter of recommendation. Confirm that the letter will be positive. If a professor cannot say, “Yes, I feel comfortable writing a positive letter for you,” that is a sign that you should ask someone else to write you a letter.
Remind professors about your specific achievements or attributes. Professors have to work with a lot of students, and it’s inevitable that they will forget details about each student’s particular achievements or strengths. If there was a time in class that you made an especially insightful comment about a difficult subject that sparked a deep class discussion, remind your professor about it. Encourage your professor to include that in the letter as an example of your intellectual prowess and ability to add to a learning environment.
Ask the professor to write about what you do outside of the classroom. Learning and contributing to an organization are not confined by four walls. After you’ve verified that the professor is willing and able to write a positive letter of recommendation, ask him/her if he/she could also include details about what you do and what you’re like outside of the classroom.
Review these notes before you decide which teachers to ask to write your recommendation letters, and you’ll be on your way to some great letters that will vouch to your ability to succeed at and contribute to the college or university of your choice.