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Letters of Recommendation: Who, When and How

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.


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