Completing your college applications is undoubtedly a big task. As you focus on checking off the “to-dos” and getting closer to having a complete application prepared, it’s easy to forget about the importance of adding a letter of recommendation to your application materials. Your story is important. Your essay is important. Your potential interview is important. But, sometimes, an even more impactful part of your application can be any letter(s) of recommendation from those individuals who know you the best.
Imagine that you are a dedicated high school teacher, one who cares about the students, makes personal connections, and meticulously prepares every lesson. Now imagine being that teacher during the fall semester, when you are asked to write in excess of 100 students’ letters of recommendation. Because of the type of relationship that you have fostered with your students, they feel that you know them best. Now, said dedicated teacher feels obligated not only to write the letters for the students but also to personalize those letters and make each one outstanding.
Without the appropriate amount of information about each student, it might become difficult for the teacher to come up with 100 unique and interesting letters that best exemplify each individual student. Knowing how important letters of recommendation have become in the admission process, this teacher is stressed and crunched for time. Now having put yourself into your teacher's shoes, what can be done on your part, as the student, to make the process simple?
- When, who, and how you should ask for a letter of recommendation
- What you will need to provide to someone who is writing a letter recommendation for you
- How you should follow up with the person writing your recommendation letter
- The importance of letters of recommendation
When Should I Ask?
Students can do several things to avoid this situation, which will in turn help teachers write stronger and more sincere letters of recommendation. First, many students wait until the fall of their senior year to request letters of recommendations; however, it’s best to ask teachers in the spring of junior year. Then, the teachers have plenty of time, including the summer, to make the letter both strong and sincere.
Since teachers often become inundated with letters of recommendation requests in the fall, some may put a limit on the number they will write, which is another good incentive to ask in the spring. In addition, it’s perfectly acceptable for a teacher to decline your request. While this rejection might hurt, in the end, you are better off having a teacher decline your request than write a letter that is not strong. So, take careful consideration when asking your teachers, which brings us to the next section.
Who to Ask?
Typically, students ask their junior year teachers, since they are either still in their class or have just finished that class. However, regardless of the year in which you had a teacher, it’s most important to ask a teacher who will feel comfortable writing a solid recommendation about you.
Choose Teachers Who Know Your Strengths
For example, if you have always been a strong student and have done well in the majority of your classes, it might be difficult to decide whom to pick solely based on how you performed academically in that class. Instead, think of the class in which you participated in and contributed to the discussion, one in which you built a strong relationship with the teacher by advocating for yourself and asking for help or clarification when needed, or one in which you went out of your way to help others. You want a teacher who can speak to your work ethic, your concern for your grades, and your ability to seek help when needed and help others who need it. You should choose a teacher that pushes you to be your best and does not let you settle for "good enough."
Choose a Teacher From Your Desired Course of Study
In addition, if you have declared a specific major or plan on choosing a specific major, it’s wise to ask a teacher in that course of study, as long as you have also developed a strong relationship with them. Now, if you tend to be more on the quiet side, it’s not too late to try to be proactive. Remember, teachers are there to help, and most of them thoroughly enjoy getting to know you.
Choose Another Adult That Knows You Well
There may be times when a student feels that his or her teachers might not know them as well as another adult who could speak better on his or her behalf. While the students should still have the teacher and counselor send in their recommendations, it's perfectly acceptable to consider asking others who know you well, including supervisors of extracurricular activities, employers, representatives from community organizations, clergy, or summer program coordinators. However, it is wise to refrain from sending large numbers of extra recommendations.
How Do I Ask?
Keep in mind that since you are asking someone to speak on your behalf and to dedicate a substantial amount of time to do so, you should ask for this recommendation in person. Prepscholar gives some excellent advice:
Depending on your teacher's schedule and school culture, it may be appropriate to email your teacher to set up an appointment or meeting. Asking for a letter of recommendation solely over email could be interpreted as impersonal, distant, and less mature, an impression you don't want to make in the mind of a recommender.
I also wouldn't recommend asking during class time, but instead find time during a free period, after school, or whenever the teacher has free time to meet. The request may be short, but you still want to create space in case your teacher wants to further discuss your plans.
What Do I Provide?
The College Board does an excellent job of explaining the five items to provide to each of your recommenders. It’s wise to print out these forms and put them in a folder with a thank you included. (And, yes, this thank you is in addition to the one you will write after the recommenders have submitted your letters.)
- A completed student information form (such as the one attached here!) Share your dreams and ambitions. Reflect on your strengths and weaknesses. If there are factors beyond your control that have influenced your ability to perform as you would have liked, make sure your recommenders are sufficiently informed so they can help you tell your “story.” Give them the necessary information and insight so they can write well-balanced letters on your behalf.
- An "Interaction Sheet" on which the student describes past events or interactions from the time in the teacher's class. This will help the teacher recall specific characteristics of and anecdotes about the student. It is likely that the chosen teacher is someone who made a difference in your learning experience. It is also quite possible that the teacher does not have an immediate recall of the circumstances surrounding the key moments of “discovery” for you in his/her classroom. By re-living such moments of revelation, you give your teacher the basis for a narrative to use in writing on your behalf.
- Assignment samples from the time the student was in the teacher's class. Again, this will help the teacher remember the student. A brief synopsis of the student's goals and interests.
- A list of colleges the student will be applying to, along with deadlines and any appropriate forms.
In addition to the list of colleges, it’s best for students to explain to teachers how and where to submit their letters. For example, if your school uses Scoir, then all of the teachers and guidance counselors would upload and submit their letters within Scoir. In Scoir, you would “request” a letter of recommendation through our system. However, this request does NOT replace all of the strategies listed above. You should first talk with the teacher, provide them with the materials above, and then formally request a letter of recommendation through the Scoir system. These letters then become part of your application packet that is submitted by the guidance counselors to the colleges.
If your school does not use Scoir just yet, then let the teachers know which application you are using, such as the Common Application, which also allows teachers to send their recommendations directly through the website. If any colleges still require teachers to send their letters in the mail, then provide the teachers with a stamped and addressed envelope for each school that still wants them in the snail mail.
How Should I Follow Up?
You should always send each person who has written a letter on your behalf a hand-written thank you note, letting them know how much you appreciate both the time and effort that it took to write the letter.
If a teacher hasn’t yet written the letter and it’s getting close to the deadline, take a few minutes to stop by his or her classroom to ask if there is anything else that they might need in order to finish the letter or to see if you can help in any way. At this brief meeting, it’s also a good idea to remind them of the approaching deadline. As you can probably assume, this does NOT mean that you can barge into the classroom in a ball of stress and start begging for your recommendation. Remember, this teacher is writing your letter of recommendation, and you want it to be a positive and supportive letter. Be kind, be appreciative, and be understanding.
How Important are Letters of Recommendation?
Admission committees put varying degrees of importance on the letters of recommendation; however, according to NACAC’s 2019 State of College Admissions report, the majority of schools still place some value on them.
|Level of Importance
*Data from NACAC's 2019 State of College Admission Report
While the importance of letters of recommendation vary from college to college, it’s essential to recognize that these letters provide admission officers with context around your academic performance. They provide critical insight into your work habits and learning style as well as your ability to respond to challenges and setbacks. They can help explain irregularities in your academic program and/or performance and shed light on key factors that define your learning environment.
Putting in ample effort and time on your end will help your teachers write the best letter for you. Give them ample time in which to write your letter and provide them with detailed information about you. By answering the questions on this student information form, you will help the teachers better understand you and also remember your time in class together. Finally, if you are an underclassman, begin building those relationships with your teachers now so that you can make your high school years more memorable for you and for your teachers!