Now nearly three years into this job, I’ve come to realize that the most mystifying part of the undergraduate application process for nearly all students, domestic and international, is letters of recommendation. Everything else you can control -- test scores, grades, extracurriculars, etc. But students do not (and should not) have any control over their letters of rec, beyond choosing who should write them. They typically waive their right to view the letters in the first place!
A (funny) excerpt from a letter of recommendation that a friend once wrote me. :)
So why would an admissions committee care so much about something that the student isn’t writing? Well, that’s precisely the point! Committees care because this is allegedly an unbiased opinion on the applicant: their skills, qualities, and character. And your recommender is supposed to be someone who is very familiar with these things! This can be your favorite teacher -- or, perhaps, a teacher in a class where you’ve struggled mightily and eventually reached success. Maybe this is your internship coordinator or your taekwondo instructor. In any case, the person you choose should know enough about you (and write positively about you!) in order to write a letter of recommendation to an admissions committee.
(This should almost go without saying… but be sure to choose someone who likes you.)
This means, then, that you SHOULDN’T be choosing someone you’ve had limited interaction with, and isn’t really familiar with your personal qualities. If you interned at a firm, don’t ask the CEO to write you a letter of rec -- first of all, they probably won’t have the time; and second of all, they probably didn’t interact with you enough to say anything useful.
But what kind of information is “useful” in a letter of recommendation? Here’s the kicker: concrete information. A successful letter of recommendation is not only glowing in terms of content, but is also specific in terms of content. Let’s compare the two following evaluations of a student:
Example 1: Jane is an excellent student. Her work is always outstanding. She does well in discussions.
Example 2: Jane is the top student in her class this year, and has been a delight to observe over her past three years of remarkable growth. She is a standout student in World History: always an active participant in class discussions -- especially on those about her favorite time period, Mesoamerican history.
Which of the two is more memorable? The second one, of course. The first example speaks in platitudes and contains no concrete information for an admissions committee to work with. Consider the fact that these committees receive (literally) thousands of letters of rec that are virtually the same: all teachers who like their students are going to talk about how wonderful they are. Among the piles of “is an excellent student” and “does good work,” your letter should stand out with SPECIFIC references to your achievements.
How to do this? Remember that it’s okay to provide your recommenders with your resume, as well as with a few sample letters of recommendation. It’s also okay to tell them about your extracurricular achievements, which they otherwise might not know much about! When asking them to write you a letter, remind them that specificity is KEY! (If you’re asking a non-American/Canadian to write you a letter of rec, I would say that providing them with sample letters is critical, as the whole idea of writing letters of rec is different abroad.)
I usually recommend that students get two letters from teachers (one from a STEM subject, one from a humanities subject) and one extracurricular rec, in addition to the counselor recommendation. If you’re applying to university this “season,” be sure to get started on identifying these people ASAP!