In my 10+ years of teaching at the college level, I’ve met a lot of students.
Recently, a colleague and I shared how professors we’ve both known have often referred to the “top 1%” of students they’ve taught in their careers. I quickly did a bit of rough math in my head, and it turns out that I have likely taught at least 1,500 students in my own career. This excludes the many students I’ve taught in test prep programs, after school programs, and summer programs. Add those, and I could probably at least double the total number of students I’ve taught to 3,000.
Using the “top 1%” metaphor, this means that a teacher who has taught for 10 years has about 15-30 students that come to mind when they think of “the best” students they’ve worked with.
The question, then, becomes: How do you, as a student, make it into that top 1%?
Making it into a teacher’s top 1% isn’t just for the sake of playing teacher’s pet. It’s practical. As a student, it benefits you to not simply “go through the motions” of school, being just another name or number on a roll sheet. Of course, having a good relationship with your teachers benefits you in that you will have better communication with them, which enhances your ability to learn while in their classes.
But, it can also benefit you long after their classes are over. If you’ve had great relationships with your teachers—even perhaps making it into their top 1%—they will be more likely to write you excellent letters of recommendation, which are vital to your success in the college admissions process.
So, with this in mind, below is a list of 6 great ways to stand out as a student so that teachers will give you strong recommendation letters.
Many of the best teachers admire students who don’t necessarily follow the rules. But, it’s important to clarify that this only applies to being an intellectual rule-breaker and thinking outside of the box. What teachers don’t appreciate are students who deliberately disobey rules that are established for the sake of helping their classes run smoothly.
This may seem like it goes without saying. But one of the simplest ways to be a great student is just to be reliable. You can do this by always completing your work, arriving to class on time, and showing up every day prepared and ready to participate.
It’s not so much that students stand out for being reliable; it’s that students stand out for being unreliable—in other words, for all the wrong reasons. So, take the first best step toward securing a strong recommendation letter this way.
Most of the best classrooms (virtual or otherwise) function like a sports team, where the teacher leads or guides (like a coach) and all of the students also have a role (like players). This stands in contrast to traditional (and largely outdated) classroom models where the teacher takes the only active role and the students are merely passive observers.
Good teachers relish students who are excellent team players—who listen actively, participate by making meaningful contributions to discussions, and generally exude a positive energy.
In my own experience, I’ve found that classes tend to function like the organic and often unpredictable flow of a basketball game. Some of the best moments in my classes have occurred when my game plan suddenly (and wonderfully) shifted because a student raised a compelling idea in discussion that we then pursued. I think of such students as my best teammates, giving me assists as I try to make a play.
But being a great team player in class doesn’t just involve your interactions with your teacher. It also involves how you interact with your other teammates, or classmates. Some of the strongest students I’ve worked with stand out in my memory not just because of how they treated their classmates, but also because of how their classmates responded to them.
Just as the best team players know when to lead and when not to hog the ball so as to let others on the team shine, so too do the best students know when to speak up and step in when their classmates need help, but also when not to dominate the conversation, actively listening instead so as to let their classmates also shine.
Students often believe—incorrectly—that the best way to be a team player is simply to be the most “intelligent” student in the room. In reality, raw intelligence is typically not the attribute that good teachers appreciate most in their students. Instead, this attribute is curiosity.
What does it mean to “demonstrate curiosity” as a student? Generally speaking, it means having an open mind. If you encounter course material that is initially off-putting because it seems too difficult, for instance, don’t run the other way out of frustration. Instead, ask yourself: Why might this material be of interest? Why have people devoted their entire lives to its study? What could I learn from it?
With that said, another component of demonstrating curiosity is the ability (or at least the attempt) to draw connections between course material and your own interests or life. So, even if you are taking a class in a seemingly “foreign” subject (e.g. if you are in the sciences but taking a world literature course), again ask yourself what you might have to learn from this material. Perhaps you see parallels between the formal structures of storytelling and what you have been learning in one of your engineering classes. Bring this up in discussion! Not only will you find that the course is far more worth your time because it is applicable to something you care about, but your teachers will also appreciate your curiosity.
The best letters of recommendation are written by teachers who really know the student in question. Although there are exceptions to this rule, it’s typically not ideal, then, to request a letter from a teacher who you only studied with for a brief summer session, or who you never actually spoke to in person (say, from an online course).
In my own experience, the recommendation letters I write are better the more I know a student. So, if there is a teacher with whom you feel comfortable, don’t be afraid to open up to them a bit.
Why is this helpful for recommendation letters, exactly? If you are taking several AP courses while also juggling a heavy load of extracurriculars, a resume or transcript will show this at a glance. But if you are taking night classes while also raising a child or taking care of your ailing parents, for instance, the extent of your hard work will not likely appear anywhere on paper.
If you take the time to open up about the particulars of your life to a teacher, however, they can speak to your perseverance and grit in a meaningful recommendation letter to an admissions committee. That added understanding could very well mean the difference between a college acceptance or none.
You may or may not have opportunities to open up to your teachers during class. And you may or may not feel comfortable doing so. So, take advantage of your teachers’ office hours, when you can speak with them one-on-one.
When writing recommendation letters, the best teachers will not write generally about the student in question. Rather, they will look for specifics to discuss. After all, specific examples are what help readers visualize and relate to what a writer is describing, ultimately becoming convinced of their claims.
In order to do this, teachers need to be supplied with specifics to write about you. So, if you’ve written an especially impressive paper, completed a particularly dynamic presentation, or organized a uniquely inspiring event, bring this to your teacher’s attention. It will give them something to focus portions of their recommendation letter around, and they can point to these specific examples as evidence of your mastery of a subject, your hard work, your passion, or any of your other exceptional traits.
Ultimately, your teacher’s reflections on these detailed examples will give admissions committees something to remember about you as a candidate, which is crucial considering how many applications colleges receive each year.
Typically, students don’t require recommendation letters immediately upon completing a course. So, it can be difficult having to reach out to former teachers semesters—or even years—down the road. In this case, it can feel awkward asking them for the favor of writing a letter since you haven’t spoken in some time. You may wonder if they even remember you!
To avoid this, I suggest emailing your teachers not long after a course has ended just to say a friendly hello, to share that you enjoyed their class, and to ask if they might be open to writing you a recommendation letter in the future. Although you might not require the letter immediately, asking in advance in this way is a good idea for a few reasons. It demonstrates that you are taking initiative by being so forward thinking about your future success. It also helps to plant a seed in your teacher’s mind; they will be more likely to remember you when you reach out to officially request a letter one day.
Beyond this initial email, it is a good idea to simply stay in touch with your former teachers, especially if you believe you will request a recommendation letter from them eventually. Most teachers love to hear from their former students and get caught up on all of their wonderful achievements. So, don’t be shy about sharing yours. Again, if you do so, your teachers will be more eager to help when you contact them for recommendation letters.
When requesting a letter of recommendation, it’s always best to ask your teachers well in advance of the deadline so that they have plenty of time to complete the work. This means that you should usually aim for giving them at least 4 weeks and never less than 2 weeks. Remember that while they typically understand that writing such letters comes with the job and are happy to help out their students in this way, teachers are very busy people. So, do what you can to make the task as simple as possible for them.
Beyond giving them ample time to complete their letters, you can also simplify the task for your teachers by giving them a copy of your resume/accomplishments and a few of your strongest assignments as references. Finally, be sure to always ask at least one more individual than is required as a backup in case your original letter writer doesn’t come through or fails to get their letter in on time.
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