A college recommendation letter is a key part of the application process. This guide explains who to ask for a recommendation letter, how to ask, and why it matters. Plus, see our tips for writing a strong one.
How to Get a Great College Recommendation Letter
Students should start planning for recommendation letters before asking anyone to write them. For the best results, students should follow these four steps:
- Think early on about who might be good to ask
- Develop strong relationships
- When you ask, give the writer enough lead time to meet deadlines
- Offer as much information as possible to your letter writer
Note who the colleges ask for on their application forms, such as a teacher, guidance counselor, advisor, or coach. Then, as soon as possible, students should begin brainstorming who might be a good fit. It doesn’t even have to be someone they already know; if not, building a relationship is important.
Students should talk regularly with people they plan to ask for letters. This allows the recommenders to truly understand the type of person a student is and gain insight that often goes beyond the classroom or field.
The timing of the request is important as well. Don’t ask too early, such as in sophomore year. The perfect time to ask is toward the end of junior year before many others ask.
Also, students can compile a “brag sheet” to give to the recommender and help them to focus the letter. Students also can remind their recommenders about any key conversations they had.
How Many Letters Do You Need?
Colleges usually will ask for at least one or two letters of recommendation. Schools will typically want letters of recommendation from teachers; however, there are still ways to add in comments from a coach or others.
Students might ask a guidance counselor to write a brief letter summarizing quotes from people they know well, like their coach, religious leader, or club advisor.
This allows students to fit in as many testimonials as possible while getting teachers to write the main recommendation letters.
Do Letters of Recommendation Help?
As any college counselor will tell you, there’s no surefire way to get into college. Similarly, no one part of the application will make anyone a shoo-in at every college. What makes a teacher’s recommendation letter stand out depends on what subject the teacher specializes in.
A solid recommendation from a math teacher may be better than an amazing recommendation from a history teacher if you plan on studying engineering.
Another aspect to remember is how recently the teacher had you in their class. Someone who taught a student in ninth grade won’t be as useful as a more recent teacher.
Overall, it’s rare that a letter of recommendation will hurt anyone’s chances of getting into a college. A good letter can serve as another opportunity to help students stand out among fellow applicants.
How to Ask for a Letter of Recommendation
Students should ask for a college recommendation in person if possible. It’s usually much better to make a face-to-face connection. However, if circumstances prevent that, write an email to them.
Either way, a student can begin by telling the person what they enjoyed about their class, teaching, or mentoring. Be specific, such as describing a favorite assignment or interaction.
After that, the student can ask if the person would be willing to write a letter of recommendation. If you’re writing an email, explain that you hoped to do this in person but couldn’t.
Finally, explain what you hope the letter might cover, such as specific themes or points. This is the perfect time to mention a brag letter and give it to them if they agree to write the letter.
Who Should You Ask for a Letter of Recommendation?
Selecting the right person to write a college recommendation letter is as important as the letter itself. Students should consider these tips:
- Choose teachers who can speak to your academic potential. This might be a teacher in your chosen field of study or one you’ve worked closely with.
- Consider people who taught you challenging courses or were involved in your extracurricular activities. Their insights about how you handle difficulty and balance responsibilities can be incredibly valuable.
- Avoid asking people you interacted with only briefly. Their lack of personal knowledge about you may result in a generic or less-than-enthusiastic letter.
Tips for Writing a Strong Letter of Recommendation
For teachers and others writing letters, the following tips can help create a compelling narrative:
- Provide concrete examples of the student’s strengths. Instead of general praise, cite specific instances showcasing the student’s abilities.
- Focus on the student’s potential for college success. Highlight the student’s readiness for college and how they will contribute positively to the campus community.
- Be positive and enthusiastic. A genuine tone of enthusiasm and belief in the student can be very persuasive.
– Jacqueline Palochko contributed to this article.
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