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Recommendation Letters: Answers to Your Frequently Asked Questions

Recommendation letters are a sticky subject for many high school students; they know they need them, but asking someone to write a letter vouching for how spectacular they are can be uncomfortable. Students spend their entire junior year reviewing quantitative data about themselves: working to raise grade point averages, tackling the SAT or ACT and trying to move up in class rankings. While all of these pieces are integral parts of the college admissions process, qualitative information is just as important. Recommendation letters give insight into a student's personality as well as attributes that will lead him or her to be independently successful in college. Getting the best letter possible, therefore, is in any student's best interest. We've answered some of the most commonly asked questions about letters of recommendation.

Whom should my child ask to write their letter?

Recommendation Letters

Selecting the proper author for a recommendation letter is critical. For students applying to schools with a very specific major in mind, this may be an easy task. Students who will be art or music majors will seek recommendations from teachers in those disciplines, while students applying to engineering programs may select a science or math teacher with whom they have a strong relationship. Even for those students entering college undeclared, relationships are still key in getting a successful recommendation. If a teacher is well-liked but doesn't know your student particularly well, that teacher may not be an ideal candidate. Remember, this letter is intended to be personal. Students are much more likely to get a personalized letter from a teacher who knows them from a smaller class or in a capacity outside the classroom. Depending on the college your son or daughter is looking at, it may be in your child's best interest to seek a teacher who is an alumnus of their target school. Overall the best letters will be produced by the teacher with whom he or she has a solid bond.

Where else can my child look for a letter writer?

The author of your child's recommendation letter doesn't necessarily need to be a teacher. In fact, if he or she plans on applying to a military academy, a letter from a state representative or senator can significantly enhance his or her application. Most students can look to any leader in their life with whom they interact on a regular basis. This person can be a coach, spiritual leader, or employer. These individuals may not be able to attest to your child's academic excellence, but having someone vouch for his or her leadership skills can be just as valuable. The people who know your child at their best, whether through leadership, academics or volunteerism, are going to best impress upon an admissions committee why your son or daughter would fit in well at a particular school.

What should the letter say?

Recommendation letters are usually between one and two pages long and are written as a formal letter. The ideal recommendation letter includes the author's perspective on the qualities or attributes that make your child stand out. This can be a story about your child accomplishing a goal, personal growth they have witnessed, or going above and beyond in work he or she produced. It's a good idea for students to sit down with their letter writers and offer suggestions for topics on which to focus. For example, if your daughter is targeting a technology school and won her high school science fair last year, she might want to remind her writer and provide project notes to add additional context. Typically, students provide the letter writer with addressed, stamped envelopes to send directly to colleges. However, if a student knows he or she will be applying to a large number of schools, several unsealed, signed copies should be attained to mail once he or she has narrowed down college options. Though letters should always be typed, they must be hand-signed above the author's typed signature.

When should my child ask for a recommendation letter?

This is the most frequently mishandled part of the recommendation process. Starting early is essential to having the best possible recommendation letter. Being first to ask is one of the best ways your child can help himself or herself. If your son or daughter is seeking a letter from one of his or her junior-year teachers (most students do), asking at the end of junior year-rather than waiting until senior year-can be highly advantageous. Not only is the timing more convenient for most teachers, it is also a time when your child (and any outstanding work he or she has done) is freshest in the writer's mind. When school starts again, teachers will be bombarded with recommendation letter requests which may result in sub-par or generic letters. If a teacher plans to write your son or daughter's letter over the summer, he or she should exchange contact information with your child after finals. It's also courteous to send a reminder email to the letter writer over the summer and write a thank you note after the final copy has been received.

Why are recommendation letters so important?

Imagine you want a new cell phone. You decide to do some research and come to find that a friend has the phone you want. You could easily go to the store and find out every aspect and feature, or you could ask your friend what they think about their phone: How is the battery life? Is the keyboard easy to use? Do they ever drop calls? Though store personnel may be better informed, the vast majority of people would rather consult a person they know to give them candid answers. Colleges view applications in a similar way. Your son or daughter can highlight every positive aspect about him or herself in admissions essays, but they don't have the same impact as praise from someone with nothing to gain by speaking highly of your child. Don't underestimate the power of good word-of-mouth.

How does my child ask someone to write a recommendation letter?

The worst approach a student can take is to ask someone that doesn't know enough about him or her to fill a page. This is why it's important for your child to ask “Do you think you know enough about me to write a solid recommendation?” rather than “Will you write me a letter of recommendation?” Asking this question takes some pressure off the potential recommender if the answer is “no”. The best time to approach someone about writing a letter of recommendation is when they have a few minutes to offer their undivided attention. Rather than asking right before the start of a class, students should approach their teachers in their offices or their coach on a day when there isn't a big game. The letter writer will likely have some questions for the student, so your child should provide them with some key facts about the college she is considering and some reminders of recent achievements.

A letter of recommendation can be one of the best ways for a college to appreciate the person behind the transcript they have received. Students should take care in selecting their recommender and be sure to offer him or her enough time to reflect on their relationship with your child. Too often recommendation letters become an afterthought, but a standout recommendation letter can be the extra push your son or daughter needs to gain admission.

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