Sometimes, it can feel like much of the application process revolves around what other people think of you. And because you can’t control those perceptions, you can find the whole application process intensely frustrating.
This is especially true when it comes to letters of recommendation. It’s too easy to get freaked out about which teachers to ask, if they’ll agree to write your letters, and how to guarantee that they won’t secretly write you a bad letter that will torpedo your chances of getting into college.
Luckily, it’s not as dire as all that. According to Jeff Schiffman, the Director of Admission at Tulane University, letters of recommendation tend to be “fantastic.” However, the overwhelmingly positive nature of letters of recommendation means that they rarely ever become “the deciding factor in an admission decision,” though they do “allow for…gain[ing] a bit more insight into what the applicant is like aside from scores and grades.”
At the end of the day, colleges do not grant admission to test scores and grades. They grant admission to real humans who will fit in with their unique learning environment.
Consequently, letters of recommendation are meant to describe you as a student. The goal is for your letters to provide insight into who you are as a person in an academic setting, insight which only a teacher can provide.
With that goal in mind, there are distinct steps you can take to request the most descriptive and illuminating letters of recommendation as possible.
Before you request letters, you need to figure out how many letters you need and from whom:
- You will most likely need two letters. Some schools accept only two letters. Some schools will allow a third letter. Some schools don’t require letters at all. Check your school’s website and add that information to your college spreadsheet.
- They should be academic in nature. I strongly suggest you ask one STEM and one humanities teacher since many colleges require you to have letters from both. Again, some schools may differ on this, so check their websites!
- Pick teachers who know you well. It doesn’t have to be a teacher whose class you aced. It needs to be a teacher who is familiar with your learning style and can speak to your motivation, performance, willingness to engage with the subject.
Asking For Letters of Recommendation
Once you figure out which teachers to ask, approach them in the spring of your junior year. It’s not the end of the world if you didn’t ask in the spring and now it’s fall of your senior year — but you need to ask ASAP.
Asking for letters of recommendation is a straightforward process; however, be respectful of your teachers’ time:
- Ask them in an email to write your letter.
- Schedule an appointment to follow up in person, thank them in advance, and give them a copy of your Handy Dandy LOR Cheat Sheet (more on that later).
- If you’ve already asked them, follow up briefly once the fall semester begins.
Submitting Letters of Recommendation
After you line up your recommenders, you’ll need to:
- Submit their information to your application platform (make sure your school doesn’t have any additional instructions). Your teachers will receive an email from the application platform with instructions on how to submit letters. Once your teachers submit their letters, a copy of the letter will be sent to all your schools on the platform accepting letters.
- If a school uses its own application, you will need to submit your teachers’ name and email to the school. At that point, the school will send the teacher an email explaining how to submit their letters.
Your Handy-Dandy LOR Cheat Sheet
If you’ve been purposeful in selecting your teachers, they will no doubt remember you. But they might need a little bit of help remembering details (after all, they teach tons of kids each year!). That’s where your cheat sheet (a.k.a. brag sheet) comes in.
A cheat sheet is a reference sheet for your recommenders. It gives the recommender important context for your performance and points out areas they can address in the letter. However, a cheat sheet is not a laundry list of your accomplishments. Focus on the highlights.
Your cheat sheet should contain details such as:
- Why you liked their class
- What was hard about their class
- What you learned in their class
- What aspect of their class you will remember most
- Your favorite activity/project/essay topic in their class and why
- Your favorite activities in school
- Major awards
- What you like to do outside of school
- The high school accomplishment you are most proud of
- What struggles you have overcome in and out of school
- A one-page “highlights” resume
Remember to Say “Thank You”
Because your recommenders are taking time away from their schedules to write your letters, be sure to thank them. There’s no need to break the bank — your personal and heartfelt thanks are enough. Anything from a sincere hand-written card to a cute succulent plant is great.
There you have it! No need to sweat this.
If you want to learn more about letters of recommendation, pick up a copy of my book, Hey AdmissionsMom: Real Talk from Reddit.
You can also find me on r/ApplyingToCollege, Twitter, or Instagram. I’m here to help!
Good luck and stay amazing!
Carolyn Caplan is an independent college counselor, a moderator on r/ApplyingToCollege, and the author of Hey AdmissionsMom: Real Talk from Reddit. She’s on a one-woman mission to bring mindfulness to college admissions.