College Admissions – Tips for Success

For high school seniors, the college admissions process is in full swing. To help you, we’ve pulled together some advice from the Assistant Directors of Admissions at Yale, Dartmouth, UVA, Georgetown and Brown on requesting letters of recommendation, writing college essays, and preparing for interviews. Read on

Requesting Letters of Recommendation:

Choosing the right teacher:

  • Choose a teacher in a core subject area. Comments from history, science, math, and English teachers carry more weight than those from the band leader or cheerleading coach.
  • Choose a teacher who knows you well.
  • Preferably, choose teachers from junior or senior year.
  • Choose teachers from different disciplines (e.g a history teacher and a math teacher rather than two science teachers).

Preparing your teacher:

  • Write each recommender a note outlining:
    • Each college and respective submission deadlines
    • Highlights from your time in the teacher’s class, including ways in which you separate yourself from the crowd and any notable achievements
    • Activities and programs you hope to become involved in at college
  • Give teachers at least a month to complete the letter.
  • Write a thank you note to your teachers.

Sample Letter from Kahn Academy:

Dear Ms. Henderson,

Thank you very much for agreeing to write a college letter of recommendation on my behalf! 

As I mentioned, I am applying to eight colleges!  Six of the colleges use the Common App, and you can submit one copy of your letter of recommendation for all these schools by logging into the “Recommender” section of the Common Application website (  For the other two colleges, I have included a post-marked envelope where each letter of recommendation needs to be sent.   I am applying Early Action to UNC Chapel Hill, and the deadline for their letter of recommendation is October 15th.  For the remainder of the schools, I am applying regular decision with a recommendation letter deadline of January 1st.

The reason that I asked you to be my recommender is because I loved your AP English class, and because you are familiar with my academic abilities.  In your letter of recommendation, I’d appreciate if you focused specifically on how I performed in your class (since the guidance counselor is writing a letter to discuss some of my outside of class endeavors).  To help you get started, I want to highlight a few areas where I believe that I stood out:

  • I submitted a rough draft of a research paper analyzing the major themes contained within “The Great Gatsby.”  You tore the draft apart, and I spent substantial time reworking the final essay based on your recommendations.  Ultimately I received an A- on the paper, which I believe was one of the highest grades in the class.
  • In the group project where we researched and presented on an issue for the recent presidential campaign, I took on a leadership role in my group to ensure that all our work was completed on-time and at a high level of quality.   You asked us to rate each of our teammates, and the marks that I received were very positive (average of 9/10).
  • I volunteered to lead the class discussion on John Donne’s “The Flea” which turned into a vigorous debate over the meaning of the poem.
  • I served as a volunteer tutor in your class, working with several students after school to help them edit their papers. Because of this experience, I would be interested in participating in the tutor/mentor program at college.

I hope these points are helpful as you write the recommendation; however, do feel free to focus on other topics related to my in-class performance that you think are more relevant.  And again, thank you very much for your time – I really appreciate it!  

Please let me know if you have any questions or if I can be of any help in the process,


Writing a College Essay:

  • Avoid merely listing (or embellishing) achievements. Instead, tell why and how your experiences have shaped you.
  • Before describing an event, explain its significance. 
  • Primarily write about yourself rather than rattling off a family member or other person’s achievements.
  • Creative students: Do not type words in the shape of an object, write a letter to a roommate or concoct a presidential speech. Colleges are looking for a simple, heart-felt, personal essay and such creative endeavors can take away from the message you hope to get across.
  • Read here for sample admissions essays and feedback.

Preparing for College Interviews

  • View a Khan Academy video here for more advice on college interview preparation.