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 might find the whole application process intensely frustrating.
This is especially true when it comes to letters of recommendation. It’s easy to get freaked out about which teachers to ask, if they’ll even 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.
WHAT Are Letters of Recommendation (LORs)?
Colleges want to learn more about you as a student and as a human. LORs give them a peek into who you are as a whole person, so along with your essay, they can add depth and dimension to your application. Since most admissions officers don’t have a chance to meet most applicants in person, letters of recommendation can carry a lot of weight in your application journey.
Like, anything else about college admissions, thinking about and securing strong letters of recommendation can feel scary and a little overwhelming, but if you learn WHO to ask, WHAT to ask, HOW to ask, WHAT to share, and WHEN to ask, asking for these important letters can be fun and a chance for you to dig in and even learn more about yourself!
TYPES of Letters of Recommendation?
There are three major types of Letters of Recommendation you need to be aware of as you plan for your college admissions journey.
The School or College Counselor Letter: Holistic recommendation that covers the student’s academic, personal, social, and extracurricular life in the context of the school (Module Two Introduction). These letters address not only what the students might be like inside the school community, but also what they might be like outside of it.
The Academic Teacher Letter: Addresses the student in the classroom setting — what they are like in terms of study habits and desire to learn. 2 LORs are often required by highly selective colleges (and other colleges).
Supplemental Letters of Recommendation: Usually not required, they are sometimes optional. These address who you are outside your world of academics and school. Only send if they add a different dimension to who you are.
WHAT are colleges looking for in LORs?
Valuable insight about what the student is like in the school community
- the student’s personality and character
- what the student is like “behind the scenes”
- the student’s strengths within the school culture
- dimension to a file that goes deeper than the data found in the transcript
- the “compelling intangibles” — what a student will bring to a college campus
First-Hand accounts of student’s academic abilities and character:
- teachers’ perspective
- anecdotes that represent the best of the student as a member of a classroom community
- challenges within the classroom that a student might have overcome ● the student’s study habits and desire to learn
- intellectual curiosity and love of learning
- classroom participation and excitement
Special Circumstances in a student’s life:
- can provide more details and context about a home situation or family/personal struggles
- resilience in the face of challenges
HOW MANY Letters of Recommendation do you need?
You will most likely need two letters. Some schools accept only two letters. Some schools will allow a third letter (or even more). Some schools don’t require letters at all. Some don’t accept letters at all. Check your school’s website and add that information to your college info spreadsheet.
For most highly selective colleges (and many other colleges), you will need at least 3 LORs:
- ONE School or College Counselor Letter: these address who you are in and outside of the classroom and school setting
- TWO Academic Teacher Letters: these address who you are in the classroom
- OPTIONAL — NO MORE than 2 Supplemental Letters of Recommendation (if they are accepted at all): these should only be sent if they address who you are in a different way and add depth and more dimension to your application or a different perspective of your strengths beyond those of student.
WHO writes the LORs?
- SCHOOL or COUNSELOR LOR: Your School Counselor or College Counselor writes this letter.
- ACADEMIC LORs: These letters should be from teachers who can best speak to who you are in the classroom. HELPFUL TIPS:
- TRY to ask teachers from junior year because they can best speak of you from the recent perspective of teaching you for an entire year
- I know many of you don’t feel comfortable asking your junior year teachers because of virtual learning, and it’s totally understandable and OK to ask sophomore year teachers, but don’t forget that they are supposed to discuss the kind of student you are, so even though you might not have been able to get “to know” them better, they might still be able to discuss to your strengths as a student this past year, making it possibly even a stronger LOR.
- Ask teachers from two different subjects. Teachers must have taught you in an ACADEMIC core subject (English, History, Science, Social Sciences, Math, or Foreign Language). 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!
- If you are a STEM major, it can be ok to ask two STEM teachers and vice versa for HUMANITIES, but be sure to check with the application requirements for your college list.
- Ask teachers who KNOW you best as a student — NOT necessarily the teachers who gave you the highest grade. 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.
- Watch this Great Video on Requesting Letters of Recommendation from Khan Academy.
- FYI – each teacher will write ONE letter that will be used for all your schools, so make sure they don’t write college-specific essays
- SUPPLEMENTAL LORs: these letters can be from others who know you well in different aspects of your life. HELPFUL TIP:
- Find people who know who you are as a person that might not be demonstrated in other areas of your application. Consider band leaders, theater teachers, bosses, managers, scout leaders…
WHEN do you ask for LORs?
- GIVE YOUR TEACHERS PLENTY OF TIME!
- Follow your school’s protocol if they have one
- If your school doesn’t have a LOR protocol, I recommend asking in the SPRING of JUNIOR YEAR after spring break, or at least a few weeks before summer break — so… now. It’s totally ok if you don’t have your college list yet. You can update them in the fall.
- If you haven’t asked and you’re reading this in the FALL of your senior year, don’t worry. Just ask your teachers in plenty of time, giving them at least a month to write your letter, so reach out as soon as you get back to school.
- Follow up briefly with your teachers in the fall to make sure they have everything they need from you. Sometimes a gentle reminder can be helpful.
HOW to Request ACADEMIC Letters of Recommendation?
HELPFUL TIP: I suggest reaching out in person after class if the teacher isn’t busy, stopping by during office hours, or making an appointment. Be sure to follow up with an email that includes information about you. If it’s not feasible to ask in person — this year especially, then it’s fine to reach out by email. Or you can ask in an email first and then follow up in person when you get a chance to see them. In your email:
- Ask the teacher politely and thank them for their time.
- Give specifics for using Common App, Coalition App, or other application system
- Let them know they only write ONE letter so it shouldn’t be college-specific.
- The reason WHY you are asking them specifically to be your recommender
- Attach a One Page Highlights Resume of your extracurricular activities both inside and outside of school (jobs, ecs, community service, etc)
- Attach a Handy Dandy Info Cheat Sheet (see below)
WHAT Information Do you Share with your Recommenders?
SCHOOL or COUNSELOR LOR: If your school doesn’t have an INFO Sheet or Brag Sheet for your counselor, you can create your own — here’s a sample you can pull questions from to help your counselor get to know you better. Also share a basic resume with your counselor, so they can see your work experience, activities, and ECs.
- The reason WHY you are asking them specifically to be your recommender
- Attach a One-Page (or so) Highlights Resume of your extracurricular activities both inside and outside of school
- Attach a Handy Dandy Info Cheat Sheet that includes around 150 words about 4 or 5 of the following:
- Describe an assignment/activity/project from the class that both taught you something about the topic and yourself. Provide examples.
- List one adjective that best describes you in an academic setting. Give a specific example.
- What academic skills do you feel you developed and improved on in this class?
- Describe your contributions to this class that you think were important.
- Your thoughts about an assignment that challenged you the most
- What made you excited to attend their class?
- What was the most meaningful aspect in the class to you?
- How you grew as a student and as a person in the class
- Anecdotes and stories that speak to the kind of student you were in the class
- Is there any additional experience you’ve had with this teacher you’d like college admissions offices to know?
- Do you have specific ideas about what you’d like to study in college or pursue in a career? Please describe.
- See more ideas below
- The reason WHY you are asking them specifically to write a supplemental LOR
- Anecdotes and stories that speak to your character and who you are from a different perspective outside that of a student
Submitting Letters of Recommendation
After you line up your recommenders, you’ll need to:
- Be sure to read the FERPA rules on the applications and decide whether you want to waive those rights to read your LORs before they are submitted. I recommend that you do waive the rights so that colleges can know the teachers were able to write them without pressure.
- Submit your recommenders’ 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
- 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.
- Post by u/ScholarGrade here
- Post by u/LRFE here
- College Essay Guy’s “How to Ask for a Letter of Recommendation”
Info for teachers in case you come from a school where writing LORs is not the norm and your teachers would like some support.
- Eight Tips for a Great Letter of Recommendation by Jeff Schiffman, Director of Admissions at Tulane
- How to write good letters of recommendation from MIT
- Fronting Your Application from Georgia Tech (great advice for using bullet points)
- NACAC Recs that Change Lives Sample Letters
- Sample LOR 1
- Sample LOR 2
- Follow your school’s protocol for LORs if they have one
- The time to ask for LORs is now unless your school has a different protocol; then follow that.
- Generally, you need two Academic LORs from teachers who have taught you in an academic classroom
- I suggest waiving your FERPA rights
- Reminder that your teachers write one letter that goes to all your schools, so make sure it’s not school-specific
- Give your teachers something to work with in the form of a cheat sheet or info sheet (see my sample questions above)
- Be gracious, patient, and say thank you! It’s a lot of extra work for teachers to write these letters.