4 Keys to Ivy League Letters of Recommendation
While many students believe their favorite teachers will write them an amazing letter of recommendation, the truth is great letters of recommendation don’t just happen. Achievement in a course and being well liked may be the foundation, but without providing your teacher with significant guidance, your letter may not good enough to help you stand out from the crowd and increase your chances of getting into college.
Most students are not aware that there are actually 16 (yes 16!) different aspects of you as a person that colleges ask recommenders to evaluate. Moreover, students do not realize just how much power they have to effect the quality of their letters. The most effective tool for hacking your letters of rec is what is commonly referred to as a “Brag Sheet”.A brag sheet is actually a series of deeply personal questions that give students an opportunity to reveal themselves. Savvy students take this opportunity seriously and craft well-written responses with a high degree of precision. The objective being to not necessarily persuade, but more to help their letter writer articulate key specifics that will compliment the story being told in rest of your application . Remember, in addition to two teachers, your school counselor (who may have hundreds of other students) will also be required to write on your behalf. They will often need the most help of all.
In order for your counselor to write a recommendation that reflects the most authentic version of you, as opposed to a cookie cutter letter, then you must explain not only what you did in high school, but why it happened, and how it impacted or inspired you.
Here are 4 essentials for building a strong brag sheet:
1) Bring your transcript to life
If you’re on the path to medical school, let your counselor know that. They can see on your transcript that you have taken AP Bio, so tell how you first became interested in medicine and then how it developed into a passion. If there is something significant that you’ve learned in your classes, be sure to explain why it stood out to you. Be specific! If it’s applicable, try to reflect your interests to current events – for example, connect what you’ve learned in biology to the growing medical industry, or talk about innovations, trends, or news that you’ve been following and why you’ve been following them.
If you’re worried about specific grades and are wondering what colleges look at, then rest assured this brag sheet can alternatively be utilized as an explanation of what occurrences happened in your life that led to a certain grade or GPA.
2) Discuss Books You’ve Read Outside of School
You want to show that you’re curious about the world and enjoy pursuing intellectual hobbies. Remember that selective colleges are not looking for students who are motivated by grades, but rather those who genuinely love to learn. Give your counselor context about why you enjoy the author or genre. If fiction, did you emotionally connect or identify with any of the literary characters? Has this book sparked any interests you didn’t know you had? Describing books you’ve read outside of school can not only open the door to a conversation with your counselor, but also highlight that you are self-aware and can digest information without a teacher giving you specific direction to think about.
3) Explain Your Achievements
Did you win a debate your sophomore year at the state competition? Great! Don’t forget to describe your experience from start to finish, then how you felt after you won. Commitment to activities over time and leadership positions are good, but it's the impact you made on your community that impresses most. Volunteer throughout your four years of high school? Make sure your counselor understands why it was meaningful for you. You can talk about what it meant for you to score your first goal this hockey season? No achievement is too small to mention if it was significant for you. In fact, describing failures, especially for overachievers is crucial. If you haven’t failed, you haven’t taken enough risks!
4) Describe Your Work Experience
If you can balance a job, after-school activities, and homework it highlights that you can handle the heavy workload in college. Describe your job experience and in detail what your job required from you. If you learned something, whether it be a trade or character, it’s something that your counselor needs to hear about. Consider how this role affected you – did it push you to pursue a career within a certain field, or did it specifically show you what you’re not interested in? Just don’t forget that many times it’s that job at Domino’s pizza that not only earns spending money, but also impresses most.
When writing your brag sheets, you need to understand that there is an importance of explaining “why” and “how”. Counselors want to portray you in the best possible light, meaning they don’t want to just tell what you did, but underline why you did it and what you took away from the experience. Asking yourself tough questions can be uncomfortable, but it’s an important part of reflecting on how you came to be where you are and who you want to be in the future. While many of your peers may dash off their brag sheets without much thought and revision, taking the time to do so will pay off. After all, this brag sheet is a mirror of what your letter of recommendation will be – and you want your letter to compliment the rest of your application as much personality as possible. If you’re looking for more guidance on your college applications, then contact us for a consultation.