When the time comes for students to seek letters of recommendation for the colleges of their choice, who should they ask? Also how should they go about asking them? What information should they provide to their recommender? Should they include their resume? How about giving recommenders addressed envelopes?
First, a few caveats:
- Not all colleges and universities require letters of recommendation as a part of the application process.
- You will need to differentiate between letters of recommendaiton from teachers and letters of recommendaiton from individuals who have not taught the student in an academic area.
Let’s first discuss letters of recommendation from teachers:
The most important consideration is for students to select teachers based on the requirements or preferences of the college/university to which the student is applying. As an example, if the student is applying to a focused program in science or engineering, the school may require that a letter of recommendation come from a teacher in science or math. If a school has requirements or preferences for letters of recommendation, these requirements/preferences do not usually change from year to year. So even if it is still 2-3 years before the applicant will apply for admission, the student or parent can check the school’s web site now to see if there are requirements or preferences for the letters of recommendation.
Why is this important? It is important because most colleges and universities that require letters of recommendation from teachers ask that the letters be from teachers who have taught the student in the final 2 years of high school (junior/senior year). As a student goes through his/her junior year of high school, it is important to think about which teachers from the junior year (if any) the student will ask to write a letter of recommendation. If the student decides that there is a junior year teacher whom he/she would like to write a letter of recommendation, I suggest that the student ask the teacher at the end of the junior year. The student should make an appointment to meet with the teacher (explaining in advance the purpose of the meeting), and let the teacher know that the student would like the teacher to write a letter of recommendation. Although the student may not have decided the colleges to which he/she will apply, the teacher can still begin to think about (and write) the letter over the summer. If the student has a resume or summary of academic and extracurricular activities, the information should be given to the teacher as background. Do not assume that the teacher knows everything about the student.
Once the student decides the colleges to which he/she will apply, the teacher should be provided with the letter of recommendation form from the school, along with a stamped,self-addressed envelope if the teacher will be submitting the letter in hard copy. Since most colleges and universities provide teachers with the ability to submit a letter on-line, giving the teachers an envelope may not be necessary.
If a college/university requires 2 letters of recommendation from teachers, students will generally get a letter from a junior year teacher and a senior year teacher. How should the student pick the teacher? Don’t laugh…but I recommend that students pick teachers who (a) know the student and (b) like the student. Students should select a teacher who knows and understands the student’s learning style; a teacher who, perhaps, taught the student as a 9th or 10th grader, and also as a junior. That way, the teacher can talk about the student’s growth over time. Although we may find it hard to imagine that a teacher may not like a student, it does happen. Students will be the best judge as to whether a teacher likes them. And when I say a teacher who likes the student, I do not mean like as in a personal sentiment; I mean like as in respecting the student’s opinions. I have read thousands of letters of recommendation over the years,and some of the strongest letters were from teachers who did not necessarily agree with the student’s opinions, but felt that the student was a powerful thinker and a dynamic contributer to class room discussions.
While getting a letter of recommendation from a teacher in whose class the student received an “A” is good, it is even better to get a letter from a teacher who can describe the student’s performance in the class with specificity. We all know that a student can get a good grade in a class and still go relatively unnoticed by the teacher. It may be that the class in which the student received a “B” may be the teacher who can compelling describe the student’s learning style.
I also encourage students and parents to read the letter of recommendation instructions that are provided to teachers. The more students know and understand the questions that teachers are responding to, the better they will be able to select teachers who can provide a strong and compelling letter of recommendation.
Now, let’s address letters of recommendation from individuals who have not taught the student in an academic setting:
I recommend that students select individuals who know the student in a unique setting. If the individual is only telling us that the student is a great person, then that letter may not provide information that is substantially different from the information that is being provided by the teacher. Also, keep in mind that more letters is not necessarily good. There is a saying in the admissions profession: “the thicker the file, the thicker the student”. Said differently, having a thick file with lots of letters of recommendation (whether in hard-copy/paper or electronic) is not always good.
The student should not not get a letter from someone just because they think the person’s name will impress the admissions staff. I have read letters of recommendation from politicians, actors, and other celebrities, and never did the letter make a difference in the final admissions decision. Will a letter from a graduate of the college help? Only if the person knows the applicant and can provide specific information about the applicant.
Ultimately, the student wants to have individuals whose letters will strengthen the overall application. Deciding whom the student will ask to write a letter of recommendation requires considerable thought.
Doris D. is an internationally recognized admissions professional with over 30 years experience working in undergraduate admissions at Ivy League schools and other elite universities. She specializes in providing campus tours of Ivy League schools as well as forums on applying for admission to elite universities. As an educational consultant, she works with students and secondary schools all over the world and regularly travels to Asia.
Can I suggest not rushing into requests for letters of recommendation from teachers? Please don’t treat this thoughtlessly.
Whether a student needs one, two, or three teacher recommendations, consider who that student is as an applicant before a single request is made. Are there A’s and higher in every math course on the transcript, backed up by an 800 score on the Math Reasoning portion of the SAT? If so, what is the special reason to ask a favorite math teacher to write a recommendation? With those statistics in the admissions folder already, nobody in the Admissions Office worries that this student will be a washout in Calculus 101. These folks who consider your candidacy are pretty smart to begin with and they read a lot of applications.
Here are a few questions to ask yourself before you choose a recommender:
- Is there an aspect of my character that is not well revealed in my application? Does this Math teacher know about my unrevealed strengths because of a particular experience we shared? Did this teacher supervise my after school tutoring of weaker math students? Have I run a mile with this teacher after school and did we sit together afterwards, stretching and talking? Did we get around to talking about the ways in which mathematicians have made a difference?
- Did another teacher I could consider teach a class that was obviously not my best? If so, did we form a special bond over my effort and improvement? For instance, if creative writing is not my strength, did I improve? Along the way, did I show an ability to write a good expository essay.
There are as many of these questions as there are students. Arriving at the right questions requires each student to consider what will be clear to their admissions readers and what truly important elements of their academic promise or good character need reinforcement. There is more to this entire recommendation process, all of which can be approached haphazardly or with careful consideration.
Larry is a graduate of Cornell University and the Director of the College Admissions Program at a consulting company. He is a Professional Member of the Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA), a member of the Higher Education Consultant’s Association (HECA), a member of the New Jersey Association for College Admissions Counseling (NJACAC) and a member of the National Association of College Admission Counseling (NACAC).
Ideally, students should wait until their essays are completed before seeking out recommenders. While we recognize securing letters is often a “critical time path,” the most successful applicants take the proper holistic view of their candidacy to get things done in the right order. There are various ways this can manifest itself. To give just one example, if an applicant decides to emphasize leadership skills and is concerned this could be an issue after finishing the essay, then a letter of reference can be used for additional emphasis. On the other hand, if the essay fully mitigates any leadership concerns, the recommendation can address another issue.
Obviously, the “who” question should not be answered until after the essay content themes have been decided. At this point, it becomes a matter of who can most favorably expand on the targeted theme or themes.
The applicant should approach the recommender with respect and confidence. Be sure there is sufficient time to make the request and discuss the task. Your recommenders will likely receive multiple requests; therefore, it is important to politely remind the recommenders of specific examples supporting the points you want addressed.
Too often, we hear tales of students who have their heads down, mumble something, drop off a piece of paper and scurry away. Obviously, that isn’t the impression you want to make for a recommendation to a stretch school!
I try to begin this process as early as the freshman year by encouraging my counselees and clients to participate in class, take the initiative in class projects and discussions by volunteering, and to also reach out to students who need academic assistance. Teachers take notice of students who distinguish themselves as different from the status quo. Of course, even just as important as the forementioned is the behavior and attitude exhibited by the student in the classroom and on school property. This includes indiscretions that present inappropriate behavior and poor judgment; thus resulting in detentions, suspensions, and the worse, expulsion.
A teacher’s recommendation represents a subjective, yet objective, portrayal of an student’s ability to function in an educational setting. The evaluation presents both the academic and behavior perspective. Teachers opinions can form early, so why get off on a bad start.
I suggest to students to consider teachers who can best present qualifications that are not obvious on a transcript. To have a teacher only say, “John gets A’s and B’s in my class,” as the recommendation is not very helpful to the admissions committee, because they already know that information by reviewing the transcript. Students who participate and engage in class give teachers more substance for a recommendation and colleges can view a more complete student profile. This helps to distinguish the applicant from his/her competition in tight decisions.
As a school counselor, I encourage my students to schedule a minimum of three appointments per semester to meet with me, in order to establish rapport and to work collaboratively throughout their high school career.
Always be sure to follow directions, which means, don’t request a recommendation from a non-school source, unless permitted. Why raise unnecessary red flags?
Select teachers who return graded tests and quizzes on time. If promptness is not their forte, you don’t want that trait to affect the timely manner your materials are submitted to the admissions office.
Marjorie G. is an educational consultant. She has been a high school counselor since 1982.