Strategizing Your Recommendation Letters
Recommendations letters are often a required part of college applications that cause a surprising amount of stress in high schoolers. There’s no reason to be anxious about obtaining recommendations from your teachers, coaches, or other mentors, as long as you think critically about your strategy.
Typically schools will ask for two recommendation letters, but always check to see what the guidelines are. Sometimes larger universities will not ask for any recommendation letters, as they do not have the time or resources to review them. Recommendation letters will be most common when applying to smaller schools that adhere to a holistic admissions process.
An amazing letter of recommendation has the power to make or break your application. And since you cannot look them over before or after they’re submitted, you want to be sure that the person writing your letter is someone who can really speak to your strengths. Think of your letters of recommendation as a way to let colleges know about your personal attributes that can’t be quantified or ranked, as seen from the perspective of someone who respects and cares about you on a personal level.
Qualities of a great recommendation-writer:
- Someone who knows you well and understands your personal qualities that might not show up elsewhere in your transcript
- A teacher who taught a class you took your junior year—any earlier will not be relevant to who you are now, and a teacher from your senior year will probably not have had enough time to get to know you
- A teacher who taught a course that you put a lot of work into, a course that relates to your planned major, or a course that you did exceptionally well in
- Someone who can talk about you in the context of a social group—a teacher could talk about how you stand out in your school or a coach could talk about how you led your team through a difficult season
Always ask for recommendations in person. Be polite and courteous, and remember that you are asking for a favor. You should ask at least a month in advance of the deadline, and it is best to ask at the end of your junior year so that the recommender will have plenty of time to write the letter, especially if this is a teacher who might be writing recommendations for multiple students.
It is always helpful to offer to send your recommenders a copy of your resume or list of accomplishments in order to help them out with any details. Do not forget to thank your recommenders when they agree to write your letters. Show them politeness and gratitude—they have done you a huge favor! Reach out again after you receive your acceptance to college and decide where to go. They will surely want to know where you end up.
One last aspect of this process is the FERPA waiver. When you sign this waiver, you forfeit your right to ever look at your recommendation letters. This might sound strange, but if you don’t sign, it raises a red flag. Your recommenders might not feel comfortable being truthful if they know you will see the letter, and the college admissions officers will question whether your recommendations are truly unbiased and honest. By signing the FERPA waiver, you demonstrate that you trust the recommender to say something positive about you, even when you will not see the letter.
The recommendation letter is the only component of the college application that someone else writes. Even though you cannot control what the letter says, planning ahead and being thoughtful will help put the odds in your favor.