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Obtaining College Recommendation Letters

The letter of recommendation is a major portion of your application, so you will want to make sure that these letters are assets.

Maya Moritz

October 23, 2014

Obtaining College Recommendation Letters

The Mystery

Every part of the application process is completely transparent to you, the student applicant, except for one: the recommendation letter. The recommendation letter is the only portion of the application that you will not submit, edit, or write yourself. Your knowledge only extends to the writer and the due date. However, this is not to say that you have absolutely no control. In fact, you can make the difference between a “meh” recommendation letter that does not serve you well in the process or a shining example of your dazzling personality.

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Selecting the Writer

Typically, most schools require two academic recommendation letters and one letter from a counselor. Clearly, your guidance counselor will be writing the counselor letter, but your choice of teachers is important. The ideal option would be two junior year teachers. Earlier teachers may not remember you, and senior year teachers will not have had a full year with you in their class.

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In some schools, students may have teachers for multiple years. As long as this teacher has received a good impression from your work in his or her class, this is probably the best individual for the job. That being said, you have to really consider your relationship with the teacher. A teacher you are friendly with is a great option, but if he or she knows you more for your hobbies than your academic strengths, they may not paint you as a serious student. Also, a teacher who teaches a subject related to your possible major can be helpful. A future physicist may want their science teacher, as a probable diplomat could seek out their history instructor.

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Asking for the Recommendation

The letter of recommendation is a major portion of your application, so you will want to make sure that these letters are assets. Thus, after you select your teachers, you will need to make sure that they can write you impressive letters.
Decisively, acting early is best, and asking can be very quick and easy. Quality teachers will often receive many requests for letters, and you want to make sure that your first-choice teacher is available. However, you should not seem careless in this endeavor. Don’t simply ask if they can write you a recommendation letter. Instead, ask if they can write you a strong application letter. Feel free to elaborate, discussing why you want to go to certain schools. This will show the teachers that you truly care about the content of the letters, and they may devote more time and thought to your letter. Most importantly, don’t ask with fear. The worst a teacher can do is say no, in which case you will find another teacher who will probably write an even better recommendation.

The Process

Most teachers have a form that they will ask you to fill out, as teachers are asked every year for these letters. If the teachers do, fill out the form with care. Hand or send in the form on time, as annoying the teacher now could be a costly mistake. If the teacher does not give you a deadline, ask for one so that there is no question as to when the form is desired. Add details, especially about extra-curricular activities or anything that would not normally come up in class. Attach a resume if you have one. If you do not have a resume, it is a great idea to craft one regardless of whether or not you send it to these teachers. Resumes are important for internships and networking, and a student should always have their resume readily available. If the teacher has a less systematic approach, you can send in your own information regardless. A resume, activity list, or just a page written about your life outside the classroom will allow them to write a better letter.

Checking In & More

Until the application is due, you may not need to do anything more regarding your recommendations. In the meantime, you could ask a coach, non-academic teacher, or other important person in your life to write an extra letter. However, admissions officers look for quality over quantity, and an ungodly number of letters could make them suspicious of what in your application you may be masking. A good rule of thumb is to keep a manageable number in mind, such as only one or two extra. As senior year progresses and Early Decision deadlines come in November, an email to check in with the recommendation letter writers will remind them of their agreement and break the ice for the upcoming year. Few schools request peer recommendations, but if your applications include such a recommendation, remember to ask someone stable. An on-again, off-again boyfriend or girlfriend is not a good option, and neither is a fair-weather friend. Your recommendation letters constitute a considerable section of your application, and so asking appropriate people to write these letters and considering the tips above will improve your application. Bear in mind that your transcript, testing, and extra-curricular activities hold more weight in many schools, and a recommendation letter is unlikely to lead to rejection. As long as you pay attention to time and deadlines and make wise decisions, the recommendation letters will be a relatively stress-free part of your college application experience.

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