Letters of Recommendation

Most universities require students to submit 2 or 3 letters of recommendation for admissions.  And even those that don’t still accept them.  A letter of recommendation written by a mentor can help give the admissions committee a better view of the applicant; something other than test scores and grades.

WHO TO ASK

Kaplan Test Prep website gives some great advice on who to ask:

Asking for a college recommendation letter can seem daunting for two reasons. First, you might be afraid of being shot down, and two, you have no idea what these teachers will write.

The truth is, most teachers want to help you out, and there are several things you can do to help them help you come across as strong as possible in their portrayal of you.

Guidance counselors and high school teachers will typically write your college recommendation letters, although additional letters can come from coaches and employers. In any case, these letters should be from people who know you well, both in and out of the classroom. Though she might hold a special place in your heart, that eliminates Mrs. Stevenson from third grade, even if you did casually bump into her at the supermarket last week.

Collectively, these letters will inform the college admissions committee of your abilities, character, passions, and personality.

When deciding whom to ask for a college recommendation letter, consider the following questions:

  • Is this a teacher with whom I’ve formed a connection?
  • Has this teacher witnessed my growth or development in any way?
  • When was the last time I spoke with this teacher?
  • What subjects did I take with this teacher?

Your 12th grade teachers have likely not yet gotten to know you, unless you took a class with them previously, and you have presumably matured since you were a wide-eyed freshman. Therefore, most letters of recommendation tend to be written by teachers from your sophomore and junior years.

The strongest college recommendation letters don’t always come from the teachers who assigned you the highest grades, but from instructors who watched your academic skills develop.

A letter that says, “Devon struggled early in my history class, but she redoubled her efforts after the first exam, stayed after for help and steadily improved throughout the semester as a result of her hard work and determination” is a lot more compelling that a letter that says “Abigail earned an A+ in my AP Calculus class and she seemed nice based on my limited interactions with her.”

If you are only allowed one teacher recommendation, it’s best to ask someone who taught you a core academic subject. Check the requirements of your colleges; some require letters of recommendation from two specific instructors—one from a math/science course and another from a humanities course. So stay on top of that homework

HOW TO ASK

The overall key is to BE POLITE!  Students often expect teachers to write letters of recommendation and teachers often have templates he/she uses every year.  To stand out, and have the recommender write a personalized letter for you, College Board gives some good advice:

Some teachers write many recommendation letters each year. Even if they know you well, it’s a good idea to take some time to speak with them. Make it easy for them to give positive, detailed information about your achievements and your potential by refreshing their memory.

Here’s how:

  • Talk to them about your class participation.
  • Remind them of specific work or projects you’re proud of.
  • Tell them what you learned in class.
  • Mention any challenges you overcame.
  • Give them the information they need to provide specific examples of your work.
  • If you need a recommendation letter from a counselor or other school official, follow these guidelines:
  • Make an appointment ahead of time.
  • Talk about your accomplishments, hobbies and plans for college and the future.
  • If you need to discuss part of your transcript — low grades during your sophomore year, for example — do so. Explain why you had difficulty and discuss how you’ve changed and improved since then.

Whether approaching teachers, a counselor or another reference, you may want to provide them with a resume that briefly outlines your activities, both in and outside the classroom, and your goals.

WHAT TO PROVIDE

Whenever you ask someone to write a letter of recommendation for you, it’s important that you provide them with the following to show respect for their time and ensure the letter is sent to the correct place:

  • Self-addressed stamped envelope, if the letter is not being sent electronically
  • Directions on how to submit the letter (e.g. electronically)
  • An indicator that you have waived your right to view recommendation letters on your application forms
  • A resume if he/she needs to get a better, bigger picture of you (optional)
  • A brief description of any particular skills you want him/her to focus on (e.g. a strong math student asks his English teacher to write a rec letter to show wide range of abilities. Asking the English teacher to focus on non-sequential problem solving shows the admissions committee you aren’t limited).
  • A DUE DATE! Teachers need to know how long he/she has to write & submit the letter

 WHEN TO ASK

Bottom line: EARLIER THAN YOU THINK!!  Teachers are often bombarded with writing letters of recommendation, so asking them early gives them plenty of time to construct a good, supportive letter.

Peterson’s recommends: Don’t wait until the last minute. Instructors are flooded with college letter of recommendation requests at the end of the semester (as well as near application deadlines), and you don’t want your letter to suffer as a result. If you approach your instructor a few months before the deadline, you will avoid putting him or her under pressure, and you give him or her plenty of time to ponder your performance. As the deadline approaches, you can always send the writer a friendly reminder of the impending deadline.