Patricia Duda (college-101.com) has been helping students develop a plan for college admissions for over 30 years. As a former AP gifted program coordinator and independent educational consultant, Pat knows what colleges want and has helped thousands of students navigate this daunting process. Here is some of her great advice on the recommendation process.
Getting into college today takes time and planning because there are many aspects of college admissions. There is much truth to the saying that when you fail to plan, you plan to fail. Along with the numeric quotients of this process (SAT and ACT scores, class rank, grades, and course rigor), there are other more personal components such as the all-important letters of recommendation.
1. Ask for Recommendations in Your Junior Year
Many students make the mistake of waiting until the beginning of senior year to approach teachers for letters of recommendation, but teachers are often writing many such letters and can only do a certain amount of extra work. Teacher evaluations (a.k.a. recommendations) take time, and there are many forms and other data to compile for each student within a certain time frame. To my point, how many students are in your junior class? Now multiply that by at least 8 to 10 college applications (the average) per student. Get my drift? Now consider that teachers sometimes leave, retire, or get reassigned. Get on their list—especially if you know they write good letters. Get a jump on the process and approach these teachers in your junior year. Even though you are asking in 11th grade, you will be on that teacher’s radar and you can follow up in the beginning of senior year so that you can start your applications early.
Ask teachers and counselors politely—in fact, ask them formally in writing. After they’ve agreed to recommend you, give them a copy of your résumé in a large manila envelope, fill out Naviance, invite them on the Common App, and give them your email address and your guidance counselor’s name. Teachers know you in the context of their classroom, but to do these evaluations they should know more information about you such as your leadership activities, your participation in community service and clubs, as well as your career interests.
3. Who to Ask
There are a few people who must and should be on your list as academic references (teachers, guidance counselors, other)—let me explain. Most of today’s top-tier colleges request that you ask two teachers for recommendations. In addition, your high school’s Guidance Department must also provide a school report that includes a ratings chart and a reference letter. If the teacher consents, he or she will write a narrative about you as well as evaluate a list of approximately 15 adjectives and grid your "academic work habits and educational personality" from 7 categories of performance (Below Average/ Average/Good/Very Good/Excellent/Outstanding/One of the best in my career).
4. Choose Well
With so much riding on these recommendations, it’s important to choose your “recommenders” well. Select a teacher you know will write a great letter and do the best "grid." If you had a teacher for several years who knows you well, that's a good pick. Usually colleges want junior year teachers. Ask other students who are seniors which teachers they asked and maybe they can give you insight on their choices—especially those teachers who write great recommendations. If you have an idea of your college major, make sure you ask a teacher in that field—for example, ask your science teacher for a recommendation if you want to pursue a career in forensics.
5. Get to Know Your Guidance Counselor
Your guidance counselor will also write a narrative about you as part of the school report. Drop in and talk to him or her about college, including about issues such as public or private college, size and location of school, possible career paths, and scholarship opportunities. Engage the counselor in a conversation about your interests and concerns. Let them know about your ambitions. Ask when the college reps are visiting. Find out about local and national college fairs. Make it a point to talk to your guidance counselor several times in your junior year—otherwise, how can he or she write about you?
6. Other Recommendations
In addition to two references from teachers, if you have a friend who is an alumnus of a college you are considering, or you have a coach, employer, or club advisor who can strongly advocate for your leadership qualities, or someone who can give some special insight into your character, by all means ask him or her. But pick only one.
As an expert in the college admissions process, Pat Duda has successfully guided clients through the application maze. She has expertise in crafting strategies, coordinating and adhering to deadlines, matching colleges, advising on essays, and positioning students. College-101 decodes the application process. Don’t get lost in the crowd; be proactive and carve your pathway to a successful college admissions experience. The best testimonial is that Pat continues to advise her students even after college when they apply to graduate school, law school, and medical school.
Contact: Pat Duda, NACAC and PACAC (national and state member)