Updated: Jan 14
As the college application cycle picks up steam, and students begin to return to school, many students are wondering what the deal is with letters of recommendation. Selecting appropriate recommenders is as important as building a balanced college list, so if you're wondering how to proceed, this post is for you.
What is a letter of recommendation?
A letter of recommendation is an opportunity for the application reader to learn more about you, both inside and outside of the classroom. A typical letter of recommendation will include an anecdote or two about your personality and interpersonal behavior, and will highlight what makes you stand out as a student. The best letters often include information that the reader cannot glean from the rest of the application, and they are meant to truly speak to how a student might interact in their college community and the classroom.
What is a counselor letter of recommendation?
Many colleges will require a letter of recommendation from their school counselor. Students often ask how their school counselor can write them an outstanding letter if they don't even know the student. To this we implore: don't worry! This is an all-too-common circumstance, and admission officers know to expect that. Sometimes a counselor letter will be very generic, simply verifying that the information the student shared is accurate. Other times, the counselor is able to acquire quotes from teachers and other staff members about the student, in order to paint a full picture. We encourage students to try to meet with their counselor at least once per year for freshman and sophomores, and probably once per term during their junior year of high school. This is not always feasible at large public high schools, and it is not expected that school counselors know every student very well.
*Note: Many high school counseling offices have a required form for students to request letters of recommendation. It's important to learn about the parameters toward the end of your junior year, or during the first week of senior year. High schools typically require students to request letters of recommendation at least a month before they are due. It will be important to have a sense of where you will be applying, and what their application deadlines look like, in order to provide your teachers and counselor with enough time to complete your letter.
*Another Note: In addition to needing advanced notice, pay close attention to what you will need to prepare in order to help your teachers best represent you. Occasionally, there is a questionnaire to complete prior to submitting your requests. And many teachers want to see a college list and a copy of a college essay before committing to writing your letter! On top of all of this, it's also important to note that some teachers might have a limit to how many letters they will write each year, so if you're not one of the first 10 students to request a letter, you may need to consider alternatives.
Whom should I ask? (And whom shouldn't I ask?)
If they want a counselor letter, then the only option is your assigned counselor at your high school. If they want a teacher recommendation from a core class, then your options are limited to a math, science, English, foreign language, or social studies teacher. It's not enough to have earned an A in their class, rather you should consider which courses allowed you to demonstrate growth, passion, generosity, compassion, and college-readiness.
If the school/program gives permission to obtain a letter from another trusted adult or advisor/mentor, that opens the door for letters from community members who know you very well and can speak to your leadership skills and personality outside of the classroom. For any teacher recommendation, you should make sure that the teacher can authentically speak to your personality and academic capabilities.
People to avoid requesting a letter from:
a family member
a friend/family friend
a politician whom your family happens to know (but doesn't know you)
some famous person that you think will look impressive (it won't)
When should I ask?
As soon as possible. If given the opportunity, we recommend asking teachers for letters at the end of your junior year. Asking early, even if you don't know where you plan to apply yet, will allow the teacher to get a jump start on writing so that they are not as overwhelmed in the fall with all of the requests being made.
If you're already a rising senior and that ship has sailed, don't worry, it's not too late! Do your best to request letters during the first week of senior year, and remember to follow your school's protocol for requesting letters. You can always ask directly, but some counselors require you to fill out a form at least four weeks prior to the due date. Plan ahead, ask early, and don't forget to check in with your recommenders at least two weeks prior to the first deadline to ensure a swift delivery and that they have all the information they need to write an outstanding and unique letter of recommendation.
How should I ask?
Remember, you aren't asking for just any letter of recommendation. You want a positive and memorable letter of recommendation. One that makes you stand out from the other students who are applying with near-identical qualifications.
An example email request may look something like this:
Hi Mr. Write,
As you know, I am heading into my senior year and I am planning to apply to college. Your physics class inspired me to want to pursue a physics major in college, and I'm particularly drawn to optics after that cool lesson about concavity and light! I was wondering if you have the time to write me a glowing letter of recommendation for my college applications?
I am planning to apply to Arizona State University, University of Colorado Boulder, Grinnell, Emory, Vanderbilt, and USC. I'm also applying to UCLA and UC Berkeley (Cal), but neither require or allow letters of recommendation. At the moment, I think Grinnell is my top choice because their curriculum is flexible and I would have ample opportunity to gain lab experience in various facets of physics prior to applying to graduate school. I plan to apply Early Action to as many schools as I can, so I'm hoping to have all of my applications submitted by October 15th. The earliest deadline for all materials is November 1, but I want to leave enough time to resend anything that may be missing prior to the deadlines.
I've attached to this email a copy of my most recent transcript, activities list, resume, Common App essay, UC personal insight question responses, and my final research paper for your course last year. I have not yet completed my supplemental essays, but can provide you with those for context as they become available. I scored a 1340 on the PSAT in my junior year, but have not yet taken the SAT. I am registered for the test in September, so if all goes as planned, I should be able to provide you with my scores prior to my application submissions.
I understand that teachers take time out of their personal lives to write students letters of recommendation, and I truly appreciate you considering me this year. Please let me know if there is any other information that would be helpful to provide, and let me know either way if you are able to write my recommendations.
-Chris P. Bacon ('21)
*Note: We highly recommend asking for your letters of recommendation in person whenever possible, but recognize that there are times in which that is not feasible. It also doesn't hurt to have a printed version of your letter to give to the recommender when asking in person.
How can I thank my recommenders?
It's important to remember that each person who writes you a letter of recommendation does so in their own free time. Your teachers often take time away from their families and other social obligations to write letters of recommendation. To be clear, your teachers are not paid to write you letters of recommendation! They do it because they like you and want to see you succeed, and they do it out of the kindness of their hearts.
At minimum, you should provide your recommenders with as much information as you can (resume, essays, activities list, college list, any strengths or opportunities for growth that you are aware of, and a reminder of some moments in their class in which you shined). After all recommendations have been submitted, and you've verified in each college application portal that they were received, you should write them a hand-written thank you card. There are some limitations to the kinds of gifts that can be accepted, but it never hurts to gift them a nice box of chocolates, school supplies, a copy of your favorite book, or a gift card to a local restaurant. To be clear, you should be thanking your recommenders upon submission, regardless of whether or not you are admitted.
What's the take-away?
Teachers are not required to write you a letter of recommendation, so be mindful and respectful of their time and energy, and provide them with as much information as you can to make the process smoother. Consider which teachers/mentors know you best, inside and outside of the classroom. Make sure you know the requirements for each college (it's a big no-no to send a letter of recommendation to a school that explicitly states that they do not accept them)! Try to ask in person, but if you can't, a well-written and detailed email is sufficient. And don't forget to thank them for their time, energy, generosity, and kind words.
Good luck (but I know you won't need it),
Independent College Counselor
Co-Founder of Virtual College Counselors