Many families underestimate the importance of letters of recommendation with in their college applications.

Last year, I had a student -- let's call him Ethan -- who initially came to me in the spring, when he had a class assignment to write the first draft of his personal statement. When we met, he had a couple names on his shortlist of colleges and a mess of ideas for his college essays. Because of his anxieties about the essay writing, we weren't able to cover much else during the session.

Ethan had a busy summer and didn't resurface again until the fall. The next time we met, he had the same three or four colleges on his list, a draft of the personal statement...and nothing else. He was planning on submitting applications for a couple early deadlines in November, but he hadn't taken any steps to secure the letters of recommendation he'd need.

There were a few unfortunate things about that situation.

The teachers that Ethan hoped would write his recommendation letters were among the most sought-after at his school, and because he made his request so late in the game, they couldn't make his early deadlines.

Additionally, once Ethan determined which counselor would be writing a letter, he realized with a shock that he had never once met that person. To make things worse, he had missed the deadline his school's college counseling office had established for submitting his brag sheet. This counselor, who had no familiarity with Ethan, didn't even have suggestions for the material she could include in his letter.

Now, Ethan's story pretty much worst-case scenario when it comes to these letters.

It doesn't take a lot to make sure that you have everything in place.

Here's how:

  1. Identify your recommenders ASAP. (Not sure who or how many letters you'll need? Check out this handy guide.
  2. Prepare your brag sheet (or junior questionnaire, as it's called at some high schools) with talking points about yourself. (Don't have a brag sheet at your school? Check out the questions that Santa Monica High School asks.
  3. Build your personal rapport (without overdoing it) with your intended recommenders, and, before the end of junior year, ask if they'd be willing to write an EXCELLENT letter of recommendation for you for the fall.