Advice for College Recommendation Letters
Let’s engage in mental exercise intended to do something quite strange—help you imagine your teachers as real human beings. Don’t worry—there’s a purpose to this!
Put yourself in your favorite English teacher’s shoes for a moment. Let’s call him Mr. Hemingway. Mr. Hemingway rises at 5:30 AM to walk his dog and pack his daughter’s lunch before beginning his 40 minute commute to school. He prepares engaging lessons for five sections of thirty students, four different courses in total, including AP English, AP English Language and Composition, Honors English 11, and English 11. He stays after school each day to run the school’s paper and literary magazine. When he gets home, it’s a little bit of family time and a quick dinner before attacking the pile of 150 essays he has to grade by the end of the week. When that concludes, Mr. Hemingway gets some rest and then wakes up and does this routine all over again.
The goal here isn’t to engender tears of pity for the educators in your lives. Rather, it is to convince you to reconsider your timetable for soliciting college letters of recommendation. Let us explain.
When should I ask?
By October and November, popular teachers like Mr. Hemingway may have as many as 100 students asking them to write college letters of recommendation on their behalf. Some teachers, in an attempt to stave off carpal tunnel syndrome, will actually cap the number of letters they will agree to write. Even the most generous teachers will likely not be able to write their 50th recommendation with same level of gusto and attention to detail as they gave their first.
We recommend that students begin to request letters of recommendation prior to the end of junior year or at the very beginning of senior year. Of course, if you end up forging a close bond a teacher that you’ve only had in senior year, you can make an exception. Otherwise, your best shot a receiving a well-thought out and detailed narrative of your past contributions and potential as a college student will come from verbalizing your request before the floodgates open.
Are they really important to the admissions process?
On average, college applicants tend to underestimate the importance of recommendation letters, but they shouldn’t. According to a recent NACAC survey, over 16% of institutions view recommendations as having “considerable importance” in admissions decisions and another 29% schools grant them “moderately important” status. According to the same survey, colleges grant recommendation letters a greater level of importance than more ballyhooed aspects of an application like: class rank, SAT I & II scores, interviews, demonstrated interest, and extracurricular activities.
Letters of recommendation provide context to your application in a way that other credentials cannot. Ideally, a letter of recommendation will further reinforce your strengths as an applicant and reveal positive information not found elsewhere in your application. All other things being equal, a strong letter of recommendation may provide an admissions officer the additional piece of information he or she needs to admit you over other comparable applicants.
Who to ask?
Beyond following the institution-specific guidelines (as explained in the next section), make sure to stay relevant. Be sure to pursue at least one letter of recommendation from a teacher in your area(s) of academic interest (if you have one). For example, if you indicate on your application that you plan to major in engineering, ask a science and/or math teacher to write on your behalf. Admissions officers always appreciate the opportunity to read letters that attest to your abilities in your prospective major. If you’re undecided on a major (as many students are), consider an English or math teacher—knowledge and skills developed in these academic areas are essential to success in any postsecondary field of study
Stay recent. You should request recommendations from those who have taught, mentored, or counseled you within the past two years. Admissions officers want insight into your most recent performance as a high school student, since this is often a good indicator of how you will perform in college.
Follow the school-specific rules
Some schools have specific requirements as to whom they want the letters of recommendation to be from. For example, MIT asks for an “Evaluation A” from a math or science teacher and an “Evaluation B” from a humanities, social science, or foreign language teacher. Williams College also requires two teacher recommendations but does not place any subject-area restrictions on them. Wake Forest requires one counselor recommendation as well as one teacher recommendation. Military schools typically require three teacher recommendations and a nomination from a Congressperson. Like we said, requirements can vary greatly by school.
What is required of me?
Give adequate information. Immediately after making your requests, provide all willing recommenders with a resume and a statement of purpose outlining your academic and other-college related goals. Both will enable your recommenders to offer a more comprehensive account of what you bring (i.e., can contribute) to your prospective post-secondary destinations.
Should I send more letters than requested?
Don’t go overboard. If a college requires two letters of recommendation, submit no more than three. Admissions officers are charged with wading through an enormous amount of information, so too many recommendations may overwhelm or even annoy your reader. Worse yet, it could send signals of potential desperation and/or insecurity. If you wish to submit an additional recommendation, you may ask a coach, band director, employer, or other extracurricular sponsor with whom you have established a meaningful and productive relationship. Never ask a parent or other relative to write on your behalf. These people are rarely able to provide an objective, unbiased account of your character and abilities.
Additionally we caution connected/influential parents from asking government officials, celebrities, or other notable public figures to write letters of recommendation for their children. In a majority of cases, this adds very little to an application. For example, let’s say that a given congresswoman actually met your child once or twice a fundraiser. What insight could they possibly provide that would not be otherwise evident in the admissions portfolio? “So and so is committed to community service.” Great, an admissions officer could glean that same information in a more genuine, thorough way from a teacher or school guidance counselor who watched your commitment to service grow over a period of years.
The bottom line
Be one of the first individuals in your grade to get the jump on requesting letters of recommendation. Learn your prospective college’s unique recommendation letter requirements ahead of time and then be the earliest bird you can be. If you clicked with one of your junior year teachers, get on their recommendation list before junior year even ends.
Your teachers are busy people and giving them the courtesy of advanced notice will be a win-win. Mr. Hemingway will be less harried as he treks through his busy day-to-day tasks and you will, in all likelihood, receive a far more individualized and powerful letter of recommendation.
Dave has over a decade of professional experience that includes work as a teacher, high school administrator, college professor, and independent education consultant. He is a co-author of the book The Enlightened College Applicant: A New Approach to the Search and Admissions Process (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016).