No matter how impressive, your transcript, test scores, and activities list are a mere collection of facts, and your essays just your biased perspective. So, what part of your college application can provide a reliable and insightful view of who you are? Letters of recommendation. A good recommendation letter gives admissions officers a unique understanding of who you are from individuals who have taught you, coached you, and watched you grow and who can speak to your work ethic, your values, and your personality. All of which means that selecting the best people to write recommendation letters for you, and requesting those letters in a timely and effective manner, will be crucial to completing your college application. If you’re a high school junior or senior who is getting ready to apply to college, you should keep reading because now is the ideal time to start thinking about who and how to ask for recommendations.
Who Should You Ask for Letters of Recommendation?
Before you brainstorm and select a list of possible recommenders, check the requirements for the colleges you are applying to, as they may want recommendations from specific people. Once you are clear on what you need, you can start narrowing down your list to the best quality candidates. Below you will discover who should be at the top of your list and who should be at the bottom.
Who You SHOULD Ask for Recommendations
- Counselors: Typically, colleges will require a recommendation from your school’s counselor, which makes them an obvious pick.
- Teachers: Teachers are an ideal recommendation resource. Aim for balance and accuracy in your teacher selections. For balance, try to pick a teacher from the humanities (e.g. History, English, Language) and from STEM (e.g. Science, Math). For accuracy, consider the following advice.
- Current Teachers. Letters are best written by those who are familiar with who you are now and haven’t forgotten you. Your junior year teachers are in the best position to provide recommendations since your freshman and sophomore teachers wouldn’t have worked with you recently enough, and your senior teachers wouldn’t have taught you long enough.
- Close Teachers. Any teacher who has taught or advised you for a while or who you have worked with closely on a project is in a good position to write a strong recommendation.
- Compatible Teachers. Teachers who can speak to a specific aspect of your character and values that align with a college’s or who can testify to your quality work in the academic field you intend to study would be the ideal person to write a recommendation for you.
- Coaches, Club Advisors, etc.: Beyond teachers, great recommendations can come from coaches and advisors who have seen how you perform as a leader or as part of a team. Choose wisely, however. Only ask individuals who can speak specifically to an achievement or impact you had that was noteworthy. Anything unremarkable or general could potentially hurt your chances.
If you’re still unsure, a good general guideline when figuring out who to ask for a recommendation is to pick individuals who can get specific; they should have anecdotes and examples they can share that reflect well on who you are and what is in your application. So, try to recall who has singled you out to provide praise or support because such evidence will make a difference in your application.
Who you SHOULDN’T Ask for Recommendations
- Famous Teachers: It might seem great to ask a teacher at school who is really popular or well-connected, but if they don’t know you it’s likely they can’t and won’t write you a good letter of recommendation.
- Friends and Family: While familiarity is a good thing when it comes to teachers, it’s not when it comes to friends and family. Colleges know these loved ones are biased and won’t seriously consider what they have to say about you.
- Feeble and Forced: Even if someone checks certain boxes (e.g. current, close), if they’re someone who may not be able to write an enthusiastic recommendation because you gave them a bad impression of you, they shouldn’t receive a letter request.
If you’re still not sure who to ask for a letter of recommendation, don’t worry. You can ask your school counselor, your family, a teacher, and other trusted individuals for their suggestions and advice.
How and When Should You Ask for Letters of Recommendation?
When it comes to the timing of your letters of recommendation, it’s important to be proactive. If you’re seeking Early Action or Early Decision, applications can be due as early as November. That’s why it’s best to give recommenders at least a month to write a letter for you. Giving people even longer than a month is even better because it allows them to write a higher quality letter, rather than a rushed one, and it shows that you appreciate how busy some can be.
Usually you should make your requests at the end of junior year so your teachers can take notes about what to write when it is fresh in their mind. If you ask later, you should make some notes of your own with highlights from your time in class to help your teacher recall important and relevant details.
The process for requesting recommendations can vary by school. So, before you ask for recommendations, check with your counselor to learn what the preferred procedure is. Also, make sure to do the following:
- Make an appointment with your counselor. A recommendation from a counselor is usually required, so make an appointment to discuss it and your plans for your other letters.
- Waive your right to see the letters after they’re written. When given the option on your application, choose it. Admissions officers will trust your recommendations more if they believe they were written candidly.
- Provide information. Help those writing your letters by giving them a refresher on your accomplishments; highlight examples of quality classwork, participation, or improvement.
- Show gratitude. Gently follow up with recommenders if they have any issues writing your letter, and once letters are submitted don’t forget to say “Thank you.”
Letters of recommendation, test scores, grades, essays—it’s a lot to handle. If you’re a senior who is feeling overwhelmed, or if you will be a senior in the next few years and you want to improve your understanding and preparation for the college application process, A+ Test Prep and Tutoring is here to help. For better test scores, try our Test Prep programs. For better grades and organizational skills, work with one of our skilled Academic Tutors or Executive Function Coaches. For help with your applications and your essays, check out our College Essay Editing and College Admissions Coaching programs. Applying to college and getting ready for the next stage in your life is exciting, and with your hard work and the right help you will be successful.
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