Letters of recommendation are essential to your college application, especially since SAT/ACT scores have become optional. Your application is a way to share who you are from your point of view. Recommendation letters are the only way universities will hear from others about who you are. What the teachers and the counselors say about who you are will confirm how you describe yourself in the rest of your application.
When reading recommendation letters, the admissions teams will evaluate specific personality traits. Here are some of the most important ones:
“When you have a clear understanding of your strengths and how they align with your goals, you are more likely to achieve success." - Author and Speaker, Simon Sinek
Have you pushed yourself as much as you could in your academics; do you enjoy learning, and do you try to learn on your own; are you creative in your approach to problems; do you participate in discussions and group work with a purpose and the desire to be impactful; are you respectful of others; are you eager to contribute to the lives of others, in big or small gestures and in close or far away communities, are you a disciplined student, a mature student, do you uphold values such as integrity and inclusivity; how do you learn from others and your own setbacks?
Each letter of recommendation should be unique to you. Anything a teacher writes that can be used for another student is less valuable than what they say, which is very specific about you. The key to achieving this uniqueness is offering the teachers good brag sheets.
If a brag sheet is well organized, highlights unique traits, and offers specific examples, your teachers and Counselor will use it to write their recommendation letter.
What is a good quality brag sheet?
The point of a brag sheet is actually to brag about yourself! So put humility aside, highlight the personality traits you are proud of, and describe concisely how you exhibited them in a specific class and in your school and outside activities.
So, the key to a good brag sheet is to give as many specific examples as possible of your memories in your teacher's class or, in the case of the Counselor's brag sheet, throughout your high school career.
Usually, you will create three brag sheets, one for each recommender: a STEM teacher, a humanities teacher, and your Counselor. In most cases, the teachers and Counselor will send you their own list of questions for you to answer to create the brag sheet. However, sometimes the school provides one form with questions for each teacher and Counselor. If they don't, we add below some questions you can address while composing your brag sheet.
While answering these questions, do not repeat yourself, even if some questions could be answered by talking about the same activity, for example. Also, remember that your brag sheets should complete each other, not repeat each other. So that when Admissions read the sum of the three recommendation letters that will come out of these brag sheets, they will have a complete image of who you are.
And, for each answer you give, remember to add concrete examples:
Tell by answering the question
Show by adding examples
Always explain why.
Before you send a brag sheet to a teacher, I recommend you put yourself in their shoes, and by using the brag sheet, you draft your own recommendation letter. You can share the brag sheet with your parents or even ask them to write that "pretend recommendation letter" using the information on your brag sheet solely. Stop and evaluate: Is it a great letter of recommendation? Would you have no doubt about admitting a student like that to your college? Or could it be any other student's recommendation letter?
Ask yourself these questions
- Does it cover all your unique strengths and explain why?
- Does it give specific examples to show these strengths in their class?
- Does it reflect the best of who you are in their class, in school in general, and also outside of school, as a contributor to your community?
- Does it address at least 3 or 4 of the 15 criteria?? Which ones? Are these criteria different from the ones addressed by the other teacher or too much of a repetition?
If the answer is "no", or "not really", you need to continue working on your brag sheet.
Questions to address when composing your own brag sheet
- If you already have a Personal Statement topic, add and explain why you chose it. Highlight the character strength(s) you illustrate throughout the personal statement.
- Three words/phrases that describe me and why. Explain why they represent WHO you are (not WHAT you do) and give specific examples to justify your descriptions. Describe how the adjectives/personality traits you mentioned above translate into academic strengths and give concrete examples of these strengths in this class.
- Describe briefly one academic weakness in this class and expand on how you have tried/are trying to overcome it.
- Describe events in which you have taken an active leadership role (either helping to plan or facilitate) in this class.
- Experience(s)/achievement(s) you are very proud of in this class.
- School clubs/organizations you belong to. Describe your involvement in the school's clubs/organizations and activities briefly in a way that highlights the personality traits you mentioned before. You can also include details on your participation in "unofficial" (student-led) clubs.
- List three things you enjoy doing outside of school and expand on one: Why do you do it, who does it benefit, how do you learn from it, and how have you applied those lessons to other parts of your life?
- Talk about a personal obstacle you have faced and how you overcame it.
- How do you contribute to the lives of others, to your community/ies (small or large) - What do you want your life to represent to others? This is a crucial point for colleges.
- Memorable anecdote with the teacher, how do you plan on inspiring others in the future, career plans if you know, anything you want!
If you haven’t already begun thinking about them, now is the time to begin working on your brag sheets and whether your school uses Naviance, Scoir or any other system, these questionnaires are typically located in these applications. If you are not sure where to locate your brag sheet(s), go and see your counselor and they should be able to help out.
If you’re ready to dive deeper into your college application, check out the guide that our college admissions experts put together to help you navigate all the criteria admissions committees look at.
Second, if you are interested in more personalized guidance on how to manage the college planning and preparation process, PCC is here for you. Get in touch with Princeton College Consulting today.