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Asking for Recommendation Letters for College Applications

A student shares her expert advice on letters of recommendation for college applications.

When and how to ask for letters of recommendation for the college admissions process.
Asking for Recommendation Letters for College Applications
I was a sophomore in high school when I first wrote about the importance of recommendation letters for Fastweb. Back then, I had to hunt the internet for tips I could give my audience. Now though, as a senior, I am a veteran in all things recommendation letter related. The only searching I had to do this time was through my memory to reminisce about the steps I executed correctly and the efforts I could have improved upon. I finally have the opportunity to give you some real advice. If you don’t get anything else from this article, I want you to leave knowing the following: The more personal a recommendation letter is, the better its overall quality will be. You do not want your teacher to write about your grades or GPA. Though these are important factors in the overall college admissions process, they are already included in other parts of your application. Repeating this data in the recommendation letter will only seem redundant. This space can be better used by discussing your character traits like your strengths, fears, and dreams.

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Here are my top three tips for how to get letters of recommendation:
1) When choosing a teacher to write your recommendation, try to choose one that you had during your junior year of high school. I would argue that teachers from your freshman and sophomore years will not be able to accurately portray the student that you are now in their letters. This is mainly because students evolve considerably throughout their high school careers. I know that I have personally grown, matured, and defined my dreams significantly since freshman year. Colleges don’t necessarily want to know the scrawny teenager you were at the beginning of high school. They want to see the young adult that is ready to conquer their dreams. As for asking teachers from your senior year, it is likely that you won’t have the chance to get to know them well enough, especially before early action and early decision deadlines. You will only have a couple weeks or a semester (before application deadlines) to impress your senior year teachers whereas you will have a whole academic year with your junior year teachers. 2) If possible, choose a teacher that has interacted with you both inside the classroom and outside of school. For example, maybe your junior year APUSH teacher was also your debate club advisor for all four years of high school. This teacher can write about both the student and debater side of you. Your recommendation letter will present you as both a committed student and passionate debater. This will make the letter more intriguing overall.

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3) Avoid constantly talking about your accomplishments to your teacher. Not only does this make you seem self-absorbed, it also increases the chances of your recommendation essentially reiterating your resume. Remember, the recommendation letter is an opportunity for college admissions officers to see you as a unique individual, rather than a high school student who simply completed a checklist to gain entry into their university. Don’t be afraid to let your teacher know that you compromised sleep to study for a physics test or that your fear of public speaking paralyzed you on stage in front of a live audience. These smaller details of your shortcomings will make for a more genuine recommendation letter that reflects much more than your grades. This doesn’t mean that you should discuss only failure but let it be known that your success didn’t come easy. Getting to know your teachers and putting your best foot forward takes a considerable amount of time and effort and you risk wasting it all if you ask for the recommendation too late. You can base when to ask your teachers for a recommendation letter on when your college application deadlines occur. If you are applying to schools early action or early decision, those applications are usually due early November. Your regular decision applications are typically due early January. Try to ask your teachers at least one month in advance. At my high school, students are encouraged to ask for recommendations in the second semester of junior year or the summer before senior year. This may seem very early, but it certainly saved me a lot of anxiety before my early applications. Before November, I was responsible only for sending a reminder email about the recommendation letters. I had already done the heavy lifting well in advance.
If you are still not convinced about asking for recommendations early, here are my top three reasons as to why you should:
1) Requesting for a recommendation letter early will give teachers more time to think and write. As a result, they will be less likely to rush through the process. This is especially true because you are likely not the only student who asked the teacher for a recommendation. With multiple letters to write, teachers will appreciate the extra time given to them! 2) The earlier you ask teachers, the less likely they are to deny your request. Last year, my calculus teacher capped the number of letters he would write. Once the cap was reached, he was strict about not accepting any more requests for recommendations. If your teacher follows a similar “first come, first serve” policy, set yourself up for success by requesting a letter early! 3) There is a lot to consider when thinking about which teachers to ask for a letter of recommendation. I was thinking about which teachers I could ask weeks before I actually sent out the requests. And since you are likely going to have to ask for more than one recommendation (most students ask for two or three), give yourself plenty of time to think through your decisions. I sincerely hope this article dissolved some ambiguity about recommendation letters and ignited your brainstorming process on which teachers to ask. I would wish you good luck but you will do just fine without it!

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