It can seem like you have little control over how these letters turn out. After all, you can’t write them yourself (unless you have an exceptionally lazy/generous teacher.) Nevertheless, you do have more control over the quality of these letters than it might seem.
Choosing the right recommenders can make the difference between lackluster letters that don’t make an impression and convincing letters that make an impact. Here are the two most important things to consider (that most students overlook!) when choosing the people to write their letters of recommendation.
Many students just choose teachers based on who gives the easiest grades, but this is often not the best choice. Admissions officers will get your transcript, and (for better or worse!) will read it quite carefully. The role of the letters of recommendation is not to reveal your objective ability as a student, but to give clues into your character, work ethic, integrity, and all those other qualities admissions officers love.
A short, vague letter from a teacher whose class you got a 101% in is a lot less helpful than a long, detailed letter detailing your personal strengths from a teacher whose class you had more trouble with. So, ask yourself: what type of letter would Recommender X write, for any student? Unfortunately, there is no way to know for sure. You can’t ask recommenders to audition. Still, there are important clues.
Is the potential recommender a senile, grumpy old fart? Do they race out of class at the sound of the bell before the students do? Do they read out boring lectures in monotone taken directly from the textbook (or Wikipedia)? If so, don’t even think about asking them. It doesn’t matter if you were the #1 student in their class. They will most likely put the same level of effort and enthusiasm into writing your letter as they do into their other teacher duties.
On the other hand, if the potential recommender gives vibrant, thought-out presentations in the classroom, has students over for dinner, and is the faculty advisor for a billion clubs, they are likely to write a good letter. A recommender who loves, and puts a lot of effort into, teaching and students, will also do so in your letter.
2. How is your relationship with the recommender?
Admissions officers can sniff out a phony letter from a recommender who didn’t really know you all that well pretty easily. They see these letters all the time. A letter from a recommender that thinks you are a good student and likes you—enough—just won’t be enough.
Try to think of the teachers/advisers with whom you had the most contact and the best relationships. Maybe it’s the faculty adviser of the newspaper of which you were editor, or that science teacher you went to extra-credit lectures with, or just someone whose class you participated in a lot. The more personal contact you had, the more specific and believable the recommendation letter will be.
Also, since you can send several letters of recommendation, think about what each recommender can uniquely contribute in showing the overall picture of you. Ask your lacrosse coach, who can talk about your teamwork and sense of humor. Then ask that math teacher who saw how you struggled with derivatives, but worked hard to finally conquer them. Ask the English teacher/lit mag adviser, who can talk about your creative side. Choosing the right recommenders can show admissions officers the strengths not shown in the other parts of the application, and make a big difference. Choose carefully!