Letters of Recommendation Tips

on December 15, 2016

Letters of recommendation can make a difference in your college admissions chances, especially at colleges that base admissions decisions on a holistic review of each applicant. After grades and test scores, letters of recommendation and essays are among the next most important components of applications for admission. Getting a great letter of recommendation depends on who you ask, when you ask and how you ask.

Who to Ask for a Letter of Recommendation

Quality matters more than quantity. Do not submit more letters of recommendation than the college requires. Most colleges require two or three letters of recommendation.

At least one letter of recommendation should be from a teacher. References for academics are more important than references for extracurricular activities and sports.

If the college asks for two or more letters of recommendation, the second letter of recommendation can be from a non-academic reference, such as a coach, mentor, employer, supervisor, counselor, pastor or the director of a volunteer activity where you were a long-time volunteer. Never ask a family member to write a letter of recommendation.

Pick the right teacher to write a letter of recommendation.

  • Choose a teacher who is enthusiastic about you and can write well about you.
  • The teacher should have taught you recently, such as a teacher from your junior or senior year in high school.
  • Teachers in core academic subjects are best, especially teachers in classes that are relevant to your academic goals. Core academic subjects include math, science, English and history.
  • If you get letters of recommendation from more than one teacher, they should not teach the same academic subject.
  • English teachers can write eloquent and powerful letters of recommendation. They may be a good choice for one of your academic letters of recommendation.
  • Teachers who know you well are better than teachers who taught you for only one year.
  • Ask a teacher from a class in which you got good grades or demonstrated improvement in your academic performance over time.
  • Can the teacher make a favorable comparison of you with other students they’ve taught? If the teacher can say that you were one of the best students they ever taught, that will make an impression on college admissions committees.

For non-academic letters of recommendation, it is best if they can write about how you interacted with other people. What impact did you have on others? What impact did other people have on you? The recommenders should provide insights into you as a person: your personality, your character, your attitude and your drive.

Don’t ask someone to write you a letter of recommendation just because they are famous. Colleges are unlikely to be impressed by a letter from your principal, a business leader or a politician, unless they know you well and can provide insights into you as a person.

When to Ask for a Letter of Recommendation

Ask for a letter of recommendation at least a month before the letter is due. Remind them two weeks before the deadline. Don’t nag. (If you nag too much, it will turn a good letter into a bad one.) Ask them if there’s anything they need.

Teachers tend to get inundated with too many requests for letters of recommendation, so it is best to ask for letters of recommendation earlier, rather than later.  This will give the teacher more time to write a great letter of recommendation.

When asking a teacher from your junior year to write a letter of recommendation, it is best to ask them at the end of the academic year, when you are still fresh in their mind.

How to Ask for a Letter of Recommendation

Ask for letters of recommendation in person. Asking in person lets you judge whether they feel uncomfortable writing you a letter of recommendation. Usually you can ask them before or after class. Asking for a letter of recommendation by email is too impersonal. If the recommender is very busy, it is ok to use email to schedule an appointment, but the “ask” should be face-to-face.

When asking a teacher for a letter of recommendation, ask them if they can write you a great letter of recommendation. Some teachers have to write you a letter of recommendation if you ask, as a matter of school policy. Asking if they can write you a great letter of recommendation gives them a way of telling you if the letter will be less than flattering. If they hesitate, ask if there’s another teacher they’d recommend you ask.

After the teacher has agreed to write you a letter of recommendation, provide them with a copy of your accomplishments resume. An accomplishments resume summarizes your academic and extracurricular accomplishments, honors and awards. Not only will it remind them of your achievements, but it will provide them with details they can use to strengthen their letter of recommendation.

Provide the teacher with any recommendation forms required by the college. If the letter must be sent by postal mail, give the teacher a stamped and addressed envelope. Letters of recommendation are more likely to be sent by email these days. If so, provide them with a sheet of paper that lists the colleges, the email addresses, the letter ID number and the deadlines.

Always waive your right to read the letter. Colleges don’t pay as much attention to letters where the student did not agree to the waiver, because they know the writer will be less candid and more guarded in their responses to the college’s questions.

After the letters of recommendation have been mailed, thank your recommenders for writing the letters. A handwritten thank you note or a small box of chocolates or chocolate chip cookies can go a long way in showing your appreciation for their time. You will undoubtedly need them to write additional letters of recommendation, and a genuine thank you can make a good impression.

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