When admissions officers are evaluating applicants, they are looking at two categories: the “hard factors” like grades, test scores, GPA; essentially anything that’s quantitative, and the “soft factors,” or qualitative elements like essays, extra curricular activities, demonstrated interest, and recommendation letters.
Letters of recommendation help round out your applicant profile. They provide insight into what you are like as a student and person from the perspective of someone who has worked closely with you during your high school career. The experiences that counselors and teachers have had with you can help to paint a better overall picture of your accomplishments, potential, and character.
Most selective colleges and universities require one to three recommendation letters with your application, usually from your guidance counselor and at least one teacher. Recommendation letters are typically submitted electronically through the school specific supplements on The Common Application. Because different schools have different requirements for letters of recommendation, there’s usually a limit on how many letters you can submit on the Common App.
Whom to Ask for College Recommendation Letters
It’s never too early to think about recommendation letters. Build and foster relationships with teachers and counselors from day one so that you not only get the most out of your classes, but also have people who can advocate on your behalf when it comes time to apply to colleges.
We recommend students identify whom they would like to write recommendation letters before the end of junior year. Junior year teachers or senior year teachers are usually the best for writing recommendations, since they are more likely to have taught you in a high level course, taught you over a few years, and know you in different capacities.
It is also good to get a recommendation letter from a teacher in the subject that is relevant to the course of study you intend to pursue. If you plan to apply as an engineering major, a letter from your physics teacher might hold more weight than one from your English teacher.
When to Ask for College Recommendation Letters
Ideally, you will ask teachers and counselors if they will write on your behalf at the end of junior year or the very beginning of your senior year. This will give them ample time to plan and draft a thoughtful and comprehensive letter that they can submit as soon as the Common App is available. Be sure to provide your teacher with proper instructions and any other materials he or she may need to reference, such as your resume or a great assignment you completed in his or her class.
Some schools place limits on how many recommendations teachers or counselors may write, so be sure to approach them early to ensure they are able to write a letter for you. You can assume that popular instructors will have a lot of students asking for recommendations. If you wait too long, they may not have time to write a compelling letter for you.
Other College Recommendation Letter Tips:
- Avoid recommendation letters from well-known or influential people who don’t know you well or personally. Having someone write on your behalf just because they are “cool” or impressive 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.
- It is not customary to ask to see the recommendation letter before it’s submitted or ask what a person wrote after its submission. This puts them in an awkward position and could potentially hinder their honesty and thoughtfulness. If you are that worried about what a teacher may have to say, you probably shouldn’t be asking that teacher for a recommendation in the first place.
- If a school advises you not to submit additional letters of recommendation, then don’t. You don’t want to give the admissions officers extra materials that are not requested and they will remember that you didn’t follow explicit instructions.
- 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 gratitude. Let them know you appreciate that they took time to write a recommendation for you. Remember, teachers are not required to do this.
Recommendation letters are just one of many application components, but they are a critical part of completing a full personal and academic profile and require strategic planning. Be proactive and think about this early so that when the time comes, the process will go much smoother and you will have no hesitation in asking for those letters.