Last Updated: Oct 23, 2020
Admission officers receive thousands of applications every day. Yours most likely will be part of the piles and piles they read on a daily basis. But there are several chances to help make your college application stand out among the rest. One of them is the letter of recommendation. Recommendation letters should enhance your college application and give admission officers insight into who you are academically but as an individual too. William Fitzsimmons, Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid at Harvard College, says, "Recommendations can help us to see well beyond test scores and grades and other credentials and can illuminate...intellectual curiosity, creativity, and love of learning.” And the Yale admissions office states, “Not only do [recommenders] discuss your performance in their particular class or classes, but they may also write about your motivation, intellectual curiosity, energy...and impact on the classroom environment.” This year, I have been bombarded with letter of recommendation advice from teachers that are definitely worth sharing!
1. Who to ask?
For some, it’s easy to know who to ask for a recommendation letter. They’ve got a special teacher in mind, a mentor or a coach they plan to ask. Some colleges specify who they want a letter of recommendation from; some may require them from an English, math, science, or history teacher. Others may want an additional letter from a guidance counselor. Juilliard, for example, requires a letter from a teacher, conductor, coach, or artistic mentor. Always adhere to the school’s requirements! The Yale admission office suggests soliciting “recommendations from teachers who have taught you in academic subjects, who know you well, and who have seen you at your best.”
2. How many to send?
Some colleges specify minimum and maximum when it comes to letters of recommendation. If that’s the case with the colleges you’re applying to, be sure to follow their instructions! If they don’t specify, do at least two but maybe no more than three. Two to three shows that there are multiple people willing to attest to your character and your abilities as a student, but sending too many could give off the feeling that you’re trying to boast. Staying humble but showcasing your accomplishments can be a hard balance sometimes, but it really will give the best impression of you college admission committees that you’re ready to work hard and be a valuable asset to their school.
3. When to ask?
You should start collecting a reserve of recommendation letters immediately! The earlier you ask teachers, the more likely they are to complete yours first. Remember, you aren’t the only one asking them to write one. Teachers often stress how important it is to request a letter of recommendation in a timely manner. Some teachers require you to give them a few weeks’ or more notice rather than a last-minute request. They want to write the best letter that showcases who you are, your talents, and all the reasons a college should accept you or why you deserve to be awarded a the scholarship you're applying for. That takes time, so be sure to give them plenty.
4. What should recommenders focus on?
Some teachers may write a recommendation based on what they know about you and based on the résumé you have given them (see below). However, there are some letters that must contain a specific focus. Again, Juilliard suggests that a letter of recommendation discuss whether you possess the characters for success such as “1. Perseverance; 2. Dedication; 3. Collegiality; and 4. Leadership,” as well as your talents and accomplishments. Regardless of the focus you want to request, always adhere to the instructions a college or scholarship committee may give regarding the letters of recommendation it requires for consideration.
5. Should I provide my recommendation writer a résumé?
Those you request a letter of recommendation from will most likely ask you to have a résumé to help them write. Teachers many only know the activities and organizations you are part of in the school community. Coaches may only know what you can do on the court or the field and the characteristics you demonstrate there. However, there is more to an individual than what they can do on the court or at school. Having a résumé allows the recommender to gain a broader perspective on who you are, not only as a student or an athlete, but as an individual. This résumé should include basic information such as your grade point average, your class rank if applicable, any notable programs you are in, your volunteer experience, awards and honors you’ve received, major projects you’ve worked on, and any clubs or organizations you are part of. Additionally, include a number or an e-mail where a recommender can reach you in case they have questions!
Related: How to Write a Résumé
Colleges are no longer “just looking to pick up students,” says Jed Liston, Assistant Vice President of Enrollment Services at the University of Montana-Missoula in a U.S. News & World Report article. Instead, many schools are searching for citizens who will be good fits for their college community. The people you choose to provide evidence on your behalf to answer this question and the quality of each letter of recommendation has an impact! If you truly want the impact to be positive and in your favor, you need to take the time to have the people in your life who know you best and who want to see you succeed write an amazing letter that can “accentuate your positives and show how you will contribute to the greater good.”
Find more valuable application advice in our College Admission section.