The topic of requesting letters of recommendation comes up often toward the end of junior year and beginning of senior year. If you're curious about how to request these letters, check out our previous blog post on the topic. This post will focus more on how to determine who should write your letters.
The Purpose of Letters of Recommendation
Letters of Recommendation in the college application process serve a few purposes. The primary purpose is to provide additional context and insight into a student and their application. A secondary purpose is to validate or corroborate the narrative of the student's application. Letters should highlight the student's strengths, opportunities for growth, particular skillsets, unique attributes, how they engage with their peers and teachers, and any insight the teacher has to support the student's goals and ambitions at [insert college's name here]. In general, compelling letters of recommendation highlight the student's values and personality inside and outside of the classroom. So how can a student determine who might write them the most beneficial and supportive letter?
Who Should Write the Letter of Recommendation?
Before we can answer how a student can determine whom they should ask for a letter of recommendation, it's important to pay attention to the fine print from the college. Some colleges don't accept letters of recommendation (like the University of California institutions and the California State Universities, for example), and in some cases, if one is sent without request, that can lead to an automatic rejection--colleges want to admit students who can follow the rules and read instructions.
Generally, most colleges that require letters of recommendation want to see insight from junior year teachers, school counselors, and occasionally a coach, minister, rabbi, or other significant figure in the student's community.
Letters from Junior Year Teachers
Colleges typically want letters from junior year teachers because junior year tends to be the most rigorous academic caseload, and junior year grades are usually the last set of grades seen before admission decisions are made. Since the COVID-19 pandemic began in 2020, many high school courses have been taught online. Now that the vast majority of students have returned to in-person classroom instruction, it's more important than ever to obtain letters from junior year teachers for the class of 2023, because their previous years have not afforded most students an opportunity to build meaningful relationships with their teachers or interact with peers in an engaging way.
Letters from School Counselor
The first thing that comes out of most students' mouths when they read that they will need to request a letter of recommendation from their school counselor is, "But I don't know them and they don't know me!" Don't worry, admission officers are well-aware that most students do not engage often with their school counselor unless they've been in trouble frequently or have experienced some turbulence during their high school experience. The counselor letter may provide some context about the student's academic progression as it relates to other students in the school, and may also incorporate input from other faculty and staff. Counselor letters are meant to be informative and supplement the student's application, but it rarely impacts admission to have a general letter from the counselor if they do not know the student well.
Letters from an Outside Source
Some colleges and scholarships will allow/require a letter of recommendation from an outside source, such as a peer, a coach, a youth group advisor, etc. Since admission officers often have only 4-7 minutes to read an entire application (including the school report, transcript, essays, and letters of recommendation), it's best to consider requesting this letter from someone who can provide something new to the application. If the letter is likely to just say the same things about you that the teacher recommendations did, then it's probably not worth including if it's not required. In most cases, these outside sources can speak to who you are in your community and your strengths outside of academics.
The Big Question
The one question that comes up every year from students and parents is how does the student choose who to write the letter. The primary concern being highlighted in this question is typically how can a student ensure that teachers can provide different insights and perspectives about a student? Sometimes, colleges make that an easy question to answer by indicating which departments they would like letters from. But in most cases, students have quite a bit of flexibility.
One way to make sure the content of the letters are varied and additive is making sure they come from different departments. For example, a math teacher can speak to a different skillset the student has as compared to an English teacher. One can speak to analytical problem solving and critical thinking while the other can likely speak more to writing skills, creativity, and personal insight.
Also consider that students likely engages differently in different classrooms with different teachers. Some teachers may be more familiar with the student outside of the classroom as well as inside (this is a plus). Others may be able to speak to a different skill, personality trait, etc. that would be good to highlight. To reiterate, the idea behind letters of recommendation is to provide more context to the student's application narrative, and sometimes the most compelling letters come from a class in which the student didn't necessarily receive the top grade.
So who should you ask? Think about the following list before making your decision:
Does the college have any specific criteria for who they want to write the letter of recommendation? If so, then that will automatically limit your options for who to choose.
Make sure to have at least one academic or school-based recommender. This most often means a teacher, but there are some additional professionals at the school that might fit this criterion.
Choose someone who has had a significant number of interactions with you. This could mean that you've known the recommender for a long time, you've spent extra time with them seeking guidance or providing help, or you interact with them both inside and outside of the classroom (ex: a teacher who is also an extracurricular club sponsor).
Have no doubts that they'll write a glowing letter of recommendation. If you are going through the trouble of finding the best recommender, you need to make sure they actually feel comfortable writing a stellar letter of recommendation. If a teacher is not thrilled, excited, or at least somewhat invested in the prospect of writing the letter, then you might consider another recommender.
Feel confident in their ability to write efficiently, effectively, and convincingly. To be clear, a recommender does not need to be a master of the English language, but they do need to write well. It doesn't matter how much a recommender vouches for you if the admission officer is falling asleep or getting lost trying to read their letter. This also doesn't mean you should only ask English teachers. Teachers across all academic disciplines range in writing abilities, and just because someone doesn't teach writing doesn't mean they can't write.
Good luck (but I know you won't need it),
Jessica Chermak, LPC, CEP
Independent College Counselor
Co-Founder of Virtual College Counselors