One of my favorite sayings to my Application Nation students is "layer, don't hammer." This refers to the common mistake that many students make in their applications when a lot of repetitive themes and references show up in different sections of the application.
An example of hammering is if a student has an activity on their activities list, then writes their main essay about that activity, then one of their teachers spends a good chunk of the letter of recommendation focused on that student's role in the activity. By the time the admissions officer finishes their evaluation of that application, they don't want to hear or read about that activity ever again!
RELATED READING: The Sure-Fire Way to Get Powerful Recommendation Letters
1. If a brag sheet or a form is required, make sure you are filling out different ones for each letter-writer.
2. If a letter-writer asks you for a resume or a list of your activities, politely offer to provide them with other information besides this.
3. If a teacher insists on you providing information before they are willing to write a letter for you, put together an email and address the following:
- Why did you ask this teacher for a letter of recommendation?
- How did this class prepare you for what's next?
- Even if the subject matter of the class doesn't match up with the intended major, what skills did you gain from this class?
- What assignments or projects did you do for this teacher that made you grow the most as a student?
- What was your favorite unit that was covered in the class and why?
- What role did you play in the classroom? Even if you were a quiet participant, find something that you did that was critical to the classroom dynamic.
- What was the highlight of the class for you?
- What interactions have you had with this teacher in or out of class that showcase your positive traits? Remind the teacher of those moments that they observed you doing something positive.
4. Don't tell your letter-writers what you plan to write your essay about!
RELATED READING: How (and When) to Start Your List of College Essay Topics
5. If your letter-writer asks you in writing or verbally to list three, four, five, or as many adjectives as you want to describe yourself, don't!
BONUS TIP: Avoid providing answers to questions about your weaknesses or challenges in the class.
Self-reflection is an important exercise for students. But admissions officers are looking for reasons to deny a student, not admit them. When a letter-writer comments on a student's weaknesses, the admissions officer will only pay attention to that.
Letters of recommendation provide counselors and teachers a rare opportunity to write about how special a student is in their own words. But if the letters turn into a recapitulation of themes, references, and stories that show up in other parts of a student's application, it is a missed opportunity. Help your letter-writers help you. Give them content that will not only make you stand out, but the letters of recommendation written for you.