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Letters of Recommendation for College Admission: A Step-by-Step Guide to Asking for Them

a student works with her high school teacher.

Letters of recommendation are an integral part of the college application and acceptance process. A letter of recommendation for college admission is a short document typically written by a teacher, counselor, or mentor highlighting your strengths and potential contributions to a school.  

You must carefully choose who will write your letters of recommendation and be thoughtful and responsible when asking for them. To help you steer clear of any missteps, we’re going to answer some of the most common questions about college letters of recommendation and then provide some essential advice.  

 

How Important Are Letters of Recommendation? 

To start, it’s common to wonder how important college letters of recommendation are. Here’s the official answer based on research conducted by the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC): an applicant’s letters of recommendation are equal to grades and test scores in terms of importance.  

But why are recommendation letters important? As Stephanie Gonzalez, the Associate Director of Admissions at Williams College explains in the short video below, schools are looking at each candidate from a holistic perspective. That means the classes you’ve taken, your grades, extracurriculars, and what your teachers say about you as a learner all matter in the decision process. 

 

How Many Letters of Recommendation Do I Need? 

The answer to this question is that it depends. Colleges often ask for two or three letters of recommendation, but each institution has different requirements. So, it’s always best to check and be sure about what you need.   

Who Can Write a Letter of Recommendation?  

Anyone who can attest to your character, drive, experiences, and potential contributions at a new school can write your letter of recommendation. Ideally, though, it will be someone who knows you well, is willing to endorse you, and is considered a leader or authority figure. Since you want to present a well-rounded picture of who you are, you should ask a few different types of people to write your letters if possible.  

To start, it always makes sense to ask a high school teacher with whom you have a good relationship. When choosing that teacher, think about the major you’re applying for. For instance, a recommendation from an English teacher can go a long way if you're applying to an English program. It can also be helpful to work on getting one of your letters from a teacher who teaches a core subject. Sure, letters from elective teachers are fantastic. But sometimes, endorsements from core teachers hold more weight.  

Next, a teacher or mentor for an extracurricular at your school is another great person to ask. You should choose an extracurricular you’ve been involved with for a while, if possible, hopefully having done something integral to support the group. Alternatively, a counselor at your school could fill in here if you don’t have extracurricular participation to rely on.  

Finally, if you need a third letter, consider asking a community leader who knows you well. That could be a church leader, someone at an organization you volunteer with, or even someone you’ve worked for during your summer breaks.  

How to Ask for a Letter of Recommendation for College 

Asking for a letter of recommendation can feel awkward. But know that most teachers view students asking them for a recommendation as a positive — you trust or think highly of them, so much so that you want them to be a part of your college application process. 

Moreover, you’ve got exciting plans and dreams for your future, which speaks to the success of the teachers and mentors in your life. That said, they’re doing you a favor. They’re not required to write college letters of recommendation. Nor are they required to write positive recommendations. So, you’ll want to be upfront, courteous, and thankful in addition to following these essential tips:

 

  1. Cultivate the relationship before asking for a letter of recommendation.  

The time you need to build these relationships will vary depending on the context. But in general, be thoughtful and think about ways to give and connect before asking for their help.  

  1. Ask in person for the letter unless that’s not an option. 

Asking in person demonstrates respect and thoughtfulness. So, try to catch the person one-on-one and in private to make the request. If you’re asking one of your teachers, you should schedule a brief meeting with them during their planning time.  

  1. Give them at least two months to write the letter of recommendation.  

What? You’re probably surprised to hear that or wondering exactly how long letters of recommendation take. Most high school counselors tell us they can take between three and eight weeks. Counselors tend to have more letters to write, so they usually take a little longer to complete them than teachers do.  

Remember, you probably aren’t the only student asking for a letter, but you can be the most thoughtful by requesting yours early and being patient. (Requesting them late in the spring or right before summer break of your junior year can be a smart way to demonstrate your organization and planning) 

  1. Share the essential information for your letter. 

Tell them when your earliest application is due, answer all their questions, and offer to send additional information in an email. Then, in that email, share your legal and preferred name and pronouns, why you asked them to write your letter, and the majors and colleges you plan to pursue.  

Your recommenders may also ask if there’s anything specific you want them to talk about in the letter. For instance, if you’re entering an English program, perhaps they can write about a great argument you made in your last essay. It’s also helpful to provide your recommenders with cool and notable things you’ve done, maybe in the email we mentioned above.  

  1. Write a thank you letter or note as a follow-up.  

We know you’re busy, but it’s essential to take the time to thank the people who write letters for you. So, grab a thank you card the next time you’re at the store, or write a brief note expressing gratitude. It will be worth your time - we promise.  

Can I Reuse Letters of Recommendation Multiple Times?  

Definitely! Reusing one teacher’s recommendation for multiple colleges can save you much time and is an intelligent way to handle the process. Depending on how you’re filling out the applications - whether on the college or university’s site or an application platform, you’ll have to deal with each situation differently.  

You may need the person sending the letter of recommendation to submit it separately each time. The easiest way to reuse letters of recommendation is usually on an application platform, where the letters are automatically used as often as you apply to colleges. 

What is a FERPA Waiver?  

FERPA is a complicated law, so we’ll stick to the basics here. Essentially, FERPA regulates the privacy of student education records, including but not limited to your college application and all attached components.  

Signing a FERPA Waiver means that, should you request your college records at a later date, you will not be given access to your letters of recommendation. 

Should I Sign the FERPA Waiver?

Yes, you should sign the FERPA Waiver. It indicates to colleges and universities that the letters associated with your application are truthful and unchanged. But what about reading your letters of recommendation first?

 

Can I Still See My Letters of Recommendation Before They’re Sent? 

Some recommenders have no problem showing students their letters of recommendation before they send or seal them. On the other hand, many won’t agree to write a letter if you insist on seeing it before it’s sent or choose not to sign the FERPA agreement.  

Colleges want to see unfiltered thoughts about their applicants, and recommenders are more likely to speak honestly about a student if they know the student is not going to see what they say before the letter is sent. All of this explains why choosing the right people to write your recommendations is crucial! 

Common App Letters of Recommendation 

The Common Application, or Common App, makes the process of getting letters of recommendation easy. Mainly because it’s all handled right on the platform.  

Common App gives you four recommendation types: Personal, Professional, Academic, and High School Official. You can invite recommenders and provide them with context, i.e., “I was in your AP English class last year as a junior. I did a presentation on The Portrait of Dorian Gray that received an A (plus extra credit! Thank you!), and I would love it if you could work this into the recommendation.”  

You can also monitor the status of your letters of recommendation. Once they’re all in, you can easily assign letters of recommendation to any (or all) schools you apply to.  

You may want to send those notifications out post-haste, but make sure you always ask for letters of recommendation separately from the Common App platform FIRST. It isn’t polite to send a request through the Common App platform without first speaking to the person ahead of time. Moreover, it will not reassure them that you deserve a positive recommendation. So be sure to make the formal request before submitting the Common App request.  

Final Thoughts on College Letters of Recommendation 

By following the advice above, you’ll easily navigate the process of asking for and receiving your letters of recommendation. Just remember to start the process early and be thoughtful and organized with your communication.  

Still, you may be wondering if going through this effort is worth it and which schools you should prioritize in the application process. With the Cappex College Acceptance Calculator, you can calculate your chances of getting into any college. Find out where you rank for the schools you are considering. Determine if the schools on your list are reach schools or safety schools so you can make the best use of your time. 

Click the button below to see where you stack up.  

 

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