While many people focus on prepping for the SATs and/or ACTs and essays, a critical part of the college application gets overlooked: letters of recommendation. In today's post, we're going to cover everything you need to know about letters of recommendation.

What are letters of recommendation and why are they important to the college application?

Letters of recommendation are typically a page in length and are provided by your guidance counselor, teachers, and any other people that know you well. They are typically required by most colleges and universities, with the exception of some large public universities, who often do not have time to read this information as part of the holistic review. They are important, because they give admissions an opportunity to understand your character and performance as it compares to your peers. In fact, they are so important, that a poor or generic letter of recommendation can severely hurt your chances of getting in, because recommendations highlight everything from intellectual curiosity to your relationship with your peers and teachers.

Now, who should you choose to write it and how many do you need?

While your application will indicate how many you need, a good rule to go by is one guidance counselor and two teachers in your high school. In most cases, you only have one guidance counselor, so that shouldn't be hard to procure. For the two teachers, ideally, you should pick teachers that know you well (both inside and outside of school), or teachers that are related to your future interests. Ideally, they should be junior year teachers, since they will have had you most recently and for a full year before your application to college. It varies by school, but some schools prefer you choose teachers that are in core subjects: math, science, social studies, and English.

Some schools will also give you the opportunity to submit supplemental recommendations by people outside of your academic teachers. For this, you can consider asking someone who knows you really well through your passions such as a sports coach, music teacher, or community service activity adviser.

You should also keep in mind that each recommender should each be able to highlight something different about you, so that you are not providing recommendations that do not add anything to your profile.

What if the teacher that knows you best happens to be for a class you are not getting the best grades in?

This is a question that often comes up. In fact, I had a student who was pursuing health sciences and wanted to ask their biology teacher to write their recommendation, but they were concerned, because they weren't exactly acing the class. However, the teacher knew them the best, because they saw them frequently for extra help outside of class. The teacher responded, "I'd rather write a recommendation for someone who is trying their best in my class and working hard to understand the material, rather than someone who is just getting A's and not participating." I think that sums it up perfectly. Think about the relationship. It's not about the grades when it comes to recommendations. We recognize that oftentimes, your deepest relationships come from classes you are struggling in, because you're mature enough to seek help.

When should I ask for a letter of recommendation?

This varies based on how competitive your high school is and how popular your teacher is, but typically I recommend asking for letters of recommendation between March and April of your junior year. Some teachers cap how many letters of recommendation they will write, so if there is a teacher you really want to make sure you ask, do it sooner rather than later. It will also give them more than enough time to write it.

How do I ask for a letter of recommendation?

It is best to ask for a letter of recommendation in person. Try asking your teacher after class or before class one day and provide them with why you are asking them to write your letter of recommendation for college. For example, "Hi Ms. Smith. I'll be applying for college in the Fall and it would mean a lot to me if you would write my letter of recommendation. I really enjoy your class and I feel like you know me best, especially through our after school discussions about trends in environmental engineering."

Also ask them what you need to provide them to help them write an effective letter of recommendation for you. Sometimes they may ask for a resume of activities or a brag sheet that may cover questions like, Tell me about a project you enjoyed most working on in my class, or What are you interested in studying and how does my class relate to it. If you feel nervous asking for the letter of recommendation, feel free to practice what you're going to say beforehand with your parents or a sibling.

Now that we've covered everything there is to asking for a letter of recommendation, what remaining questions do you have? Let me know in the comments below.

It's that time of year again. You know what I'm talking about...picking classes to take next year with your high school counselor. Depending on what grade you are in, you may have different questions. Let's tackle some common scenarios I see from my students at my process to help you as you pick a schedule you can thrive in and enjoy.

I should take easier level courses because it will help me maintain a higher GPA.

While it is definitely important to maintain a high GPA, it is equally, if not more important in some cases to take courses that challenge you. If you are getting A's in a class and it is fairly easy for you, you may want to consider taking a class that is a level up. It could be an honors or AP class depending on what you are currently taking now. Not only will you hopefully be more engaged and interested in learning more challenging material, but colleges will also recognize your efforts. In fact, colleges may wonder why you didn't take a more challenging level if you were getting really great classes in it. I often advise that if you can get away with a B+ or higher in a more advanced class, then take it.

How is taking AP/IB classes viewed by college admissions officers?

To further expand on our point above, let's also cover how colleges view those challenging classes you take through your transcript. Taking more challenging classes not only demonstrates your desire to challenge yourself, but if you perform well, it is reflected in your weighted GPA, which may also result in a higher rank within your school (if your school ranks). These are all factors that go into the admission decision.

What's the difference between weighted and unweighted GPA?

While we're on the topic of GPAs, let's clarify the difference between the two GPAs. Both are an average of the grades you receive throughout high school. The unweighted GPA is out of a standard 4.0, meaning if you receive an A in a class, regardless of the level, it would be a 4.0. A weighted GPA takes into account the difficulty of the courses you are taking and "rewards" you accordingly. For example, if you get an A in an honors class, you might get a 4.5 and an A in an AP class might be a 5.0. Throughout your years of high school, all your final grades are averaged out to yield either or both of these GPAs and submitted to colleges on your transcript. Click here for CollegeBoard's GPA conversion resource.

I have C's and D's in my current classes, but I want to take honors and AP because everyone else is doing it.

We also need to discuss the flipside. While it is "cool" to take challenging classes, know your limits, which can also mean time management and organization limits. If you are not doing well in a class, especially if it is a more challenging level, you should talk with your guidance counselor about what the options are to take a less demanding or challenging class for the following year. College admissions would much rather see you thrive in classes that are suitable for you than get C's and D's in classes that are too hard for you.

Is it better to take math, science, English, social studies, and foreign language every year or double up on areas I’m interested in pursuing in college?

This is one of my favorite questions and it can be difficult to answer as it depends on the student. In most situations, it is better to make sure you at least satisfy 4 years of those basic classes. Some students consider dropping a foreign language, but many colleges will consider students that have taken 4 years of a foreign language to be more competitive than those who do not. Similarly, try to pick electives that enable you to explore your academic and personal interests. For example, if you are considering pre-med in the future, it might make more sense for you to double up on science and take anatomy (if offered), rather than take a history class, once you’ve already satisfied the requirements. To learn more about the required and recommended classes and the years you should take, you can check out the Applying section for the college’s CollegeBoard profile.

I don’t have enough room in my schedule to take everything I want. What should I do?

I always recommend that students understand the requirements for graduating from their high school. Oftentimes, required classes can be taken online or over the summer. You can check with your high school guidance counselor on the different options to try and optimize the schedule you want. If you are unable to get a class you really wanted and you are a senior, consider leveraging the additional information section to explain that you had tried to also fit in the additional class but that it conflicted with your schedule. Lastly, consider taking the class elsewhere if that is an option.

Were these the types of questions you had? Did this help? Let me know in the comments.

#pickingclasses #collegeadmissionsadvice #collegeadmissions

As students finish their AP and SAT tests, they move onto to thinking about what to do with their summer. For some, it is the competitive student that wants to max out their summer with a job, community service, and college level courses. For others, it is their parents trying to pad their resume and their SAT scores with tutoring and adventures in a foreign country.

As someone who helps families through the college admissions process, I’ve worked with a variety of students and parents who are trying to to figure out the “perfect” resume and application and I’m telling you this mayhem has got to STOP! Which is why I was so excited to read about Harvard’s Turning the Tide Report, where colleges and universities are making the case for why being caring matters in college admissions.

Kids are more than just students. They are human beings and applying for college is more than just getting into a college; it is about their own self-discovery and reflection. As the report so aptly conveys, it’s about getting students to care about and engage with the world around them. It’s getting them comfortable with situations and people that are different from them. It’s about focusing on the factors that aren’t captured by numbers.

As we guide these students that are filled with dreams, talent, and hope, we need to try to cut back on their stress. Below are some key takeaways:

  1. Focus on Quality — Not Quantity — It’s not about the amount of extracurricular activities nor the variety. It’s about demonstrating their passion for what interests them through their time commitment.

  2. Develop them to be a Person — One day, these teens will go into the world and many of them will make a difference. Support their interests in helping others. Don’t make them do community service because you think it will look good on an application. Have them pick service activities that interest them. Figure out what they care about and how you can support that. You don’t have to go abroad to help someone. You can start in your own backyard.

  3. Don’t Select Schools Based on Rank or Name — Each student has their own unique set of values, interests, talents, and skills. Select schools based on those factors rather than a “name.” When I work with families, we set realistic expectations so that everyone wins through working to create a plan that best serves the student. They won’t stay at a school, if they aren’t happy there.

  4. Let them Sleep — I cannot stress this enough. Not only does sleeping more equate to a longer life, but it also allows students to absorb information better. More importantly, they are less stressed and happier when they get more sleep. Try to work on time-management with your child to try and reduce all-nighters. Bad sleep habits early on can lead to bigger sleep problems later on. Take my word for it — I personally developed insomnia in college and am still recovering.

  5. Make it Fun — Take your child on campus tours and balance their work with fun activities. Ideally, if you pick activities based on what your child enjoys, “preparing” for college, shouldn’t feel like work.

Anna Ren is the founder of Elite Advantage Prep and the affordable college planning course, Prep for Success: College Planning for Teens. Get instant access to her FREE college planning mini-course here.

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