College Recommendation Letter Tips

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Recommendation Letter Roundup

One of the most critical elements of a stellar college application is a collection of glowing recommendation letters from counselors, teachers and other administrators you have interacted with during your four years of high school. Recommendation letters play a critical role in painting a picture of how you relate to and interact within your academic and extracurricular activities.

Most schools, especially more selective colleges and universities, require one to three recommendation letters with your application.

But why? Shouldn’t my application, supplements and grades speak for themselves?

Your essays and transcripts can only tell admissions committees so much about how you are as a student and as a person; letters of recommendation help round out your application and give schools an idea of your character and accomplishments based on the experiences that teachers and counselors have had with you.

Logistically, recommendation letters have come a long way in a short time. What was once a paper and pen, handwritten note now seems archaic compared to electronic letter submissions for forms like the Common App. The change in format has brought about a couple of changes in formality, but the intention and procedure of the recommendation letter writing process is very much the same.

As you’re getting your application materials together, keep in mind that you’re not the only senior at your school clamoring for recommendation letters from certain teachers, and especially your counselor. It’s important to plan ahead to give your teachers and counselors enough time to write a thoughtful and comprehensive recommendation.

If you’re a Senior

Start approaching your teachers now. Eleventh-grade teachers are good to ask for recommendations from first, as well as teachers that have taught you for multiple years or know you in several capacities, i.e. a teacher who is also a coach or advisor for a team or club you are a member of. Give them plenty of notice and clear instructions on where they need to be submitted. For example, for the Common App you have to invite teachers and counselors to submit recommendations via email through the Common App website. Make sure they know that your request or invite is coming through and if there are any deadlines they should be aware of.

If you’re a Junior

Now is the time to start to think about who you may want to approach down the line for recommendations. You’ve been in school long enough to begin to form bonds and strong relationships with teachers and administrators who you have interacted with throughout your high school career.

Plus, since Early Decision/Action applications are due early in the fall semester of senior year, and regular admissions deadlines vary throughout that semester, teachers from eleventh grade are most likely the ones who you will approach for recommendations first. Identify those teachers who you think would be able to give comprehensive recommendations early on in the year and work on building those relationships so that when you approach them at the start of your senior year, they won’t have to think twice about writing a stellar recommendation.

If you’re a Sophomore or Freshman

Recommendation letters are probably the furthest things from your mind right now if you’re in your first or second year of high school. But while prepping for the PSAT and other standardized tests is paramount, so is cultivating good relationships with your teachers and advisors. Start building those relationships now, so when it comes time for those recommendation letters your senior year, you have teachers who are readily able to write personal and thoughtful recommendations about you.

Participate in class and engage in discussions. Ask teachers for help when you need it and get involved with extracurricular clubs and sports that interest you. The more involved you are in all aspects of high school life, the more likely you are to have great teachers who will write glowing recommendation letters for you come senior year.

Other recommendation letter tips:

  • Avoid recommendation letters from well-known or influential people who don’t know you well or personally. Having someone cool write on your behalf doesn’t boost your application; it can actually hurt it. It’s better to have recommendations from people who know you very well and can expand on your academic and extracurricular strengths and accomplishments.
  • While it is normal to provide a teacher writing a recommendation a resume, brag sheet or project that you did well on in their class for reference when writing their letter, it’s not customary to ask what they wrote or to see their recommendation before it’s submitted. Asking to see a teacher’s recommendation about you before it goes out puts them in an awkward position and could potentially hinder their honesty and thoughtfulness. If you’re worried enough about what a teacher may have to say that you want to screen it beforehand, you probably shouldn’t be asking that teacher for a recommendation in the first place.
  • Don’t forget to say “thank you!” After your teachers have submitted their letters of recommendation, take some time to write out your own letter of thanks. Let them know you appreciate that they took time to write a recommendation for you because, after all, teachers are not required to do them.

Recommendation letters are just one of many applications components, but they’re a critical part of completing a full personal and academic profile of you for admissions counselors. They may seem like the last step in completing your application, but if you’re proactive early on, the process will go much smoother when it comes time to submit your recommendations.

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