Juniors and transfer students, it’s time to start thinking about your college application letters of recommendation! Many colleges have become test optional and some are no longer accepting standardized test scores altogether, which makes your letters of recommendation an even more crucial part of your college application.
On the other hand, some colleges may not require letters of recommendation as a part of the college application process. Knowing the requirements you need to submit for each college application is important to keep track of when you are creating your college list. For more information on creating your college checklist, check out this blog: https://www.shcollegeconsulting.com/our-advice-blog/creating-your-college-application-checklist.
1. What Are They
Letters of recommendation are brief pieces which are written by someone else about you, the applicant. In these letters, the recommender would tell the admissions team about the kind of student you are. Letters of recommendation are meant to give a different perspective to an application that can help affirm or shed new light on the applicant at hand.
2. Different Types and How Many You Need
There are three main types of college application letters of recommendation: counselor, teacher, and other mentor. Typically, colleges will ask for one counselor letter of recommendation and two teacher letters of recommendation. If the college allows you to submit supplemental letters, then you may consider asking an adult in the other mentor category.
3. Counselor Recommendation
For the counselor recommendation, it is important that your counselor knows who you are so your letter is not generic and vague! In the counselor's letter of recommendation, they would usually share information about your high school, like graduating class size and general statistics about you. This information will be a template, so it will sound very generic. However, if your counselor knows you personally, they can also include additional information about you as a student that will help you stand out from others.
If you go to a large high school where counselors do not know all of their students personally, getting to know your counselor may be difficult. For me, we did not have mandatory meetings with our counselors, so I scheduled time and went into my counselor's office periodically in order to get to know her and for her to get to know me. Meeting with your counselor can be daunting, but just remember that counselors are adult professionals who are passionate about advising students. You can schedule a meeting to ask them questions about their experiences and advice they have while sharing information about yourself in the process!
You may consider meeting with your guidance counselor periodically starting in your freshman or sophomore year of high school, so by the time junior and senior year rolls around, your counselor would have known you for a while and can speak to your growth.
4. Teacher Recommendation
As mentioned, you will most likely need to provide colleges with two academic teacher letters of recommendation. It may be helpful to ask two teachers from two different subjects, so try not to ask two Math or two English teachers. Additionally, something to note would be if a college requires that one letter comes from a STEM course and one from a humanities course. With the Common Application colleges I applied to, I did not have that requirement for my letters. It is also important to try to ask teachers who you have had recently, like teachers who taught you during junior year. Asking a teacher from freshman year will not really demonstrate to the admissions team what kind of student you are in the present.
I asked my AP Calculus teacher and AP Biology teacher for letters. My AP Calculus teacher was also one of the advisors of our school’s Math Honor Society, of which I was a member. Since I had this teacher as a student and also worked with the teacher outside of the classroom through a school club, I thought this would be a standout letter because the teacher could write about my accomplishments inside and outside of the classroom. I asked my AP Biology teacher for a letter because I was one of three juniors in the class. Once all of the seniors graduated, we had about a month left of school when it was just us three juniors learning from the teacher. Because of this, I felt like the teacher could get to know me better since there were not many students in the class.
You want to think carefully about which teachers you want to write your letters. You will want to ask teachers who know you well - maybe you got a good grade in their class, were a leader and helped others, or worked with the teacher in class and through a school club or sport. On the other hand, you may consider asking a teacher of a class where you did not earn the highest grade, but struggled and persevered in the class to grasp the subject - maybe you spent a lot of time afterschool asking for additional help, received school-sponsored tutoring in the subject, or asked a lot of questions in class.
Please remember to ask your teachers if they would be able to write you a letter of recommendation early! I asked my two teachers if they would be willing to write me a letter before the end of my junior year of high school. Some teachers at my high school only would write a set number of letters each year (like 10 students only), so you would need to ask them and get on their list before it filled up. Asking before the summer will give your teachers plenty of time. I would personally recommend that you talk to the teacher and ask them in-person rather than via an email. If you have online school right now, ask them if they could meet with you online after class, so then you can ask your teacher face-to-face. You can always email your teachers to see when they would be available to schedule a quick chat with you.
Something else to be mindful of when asking your teachers about letters of recommendation would be to ask your teachers if they “would be willing or able to write you a good letter.” You don’t want to just assume that a teacher will write you a letter, but give them the option to accept or decline your letter invitation. This is important and hopefully your teachers would not accept it if they did not think they could write you a good letter. It may hurt to be rejected by the teacher, but this will work out better in the long run. You do not want a teacher writing your letter if they will write you a generic letter or a negative letter. If a teacher says no, ask them for some feedback about why they aren’t able to write you a letter.
Once you have asked your two teachers and they have said yes, when your school starts again in the fall, then you will want to remind them of your letters of recommendation. When reminding your teachers, give them all of the information that they will need to submit. For example, give them Common Application submission instructions, other application portal submission instructions, and deadlines. You should also remind your teachers that, at least for the Common Application, they will be writing one letter that will get sent to all schools, so the teacher should not mention a specific college in their letter.
In addition to providing your teachers with application instructions and deadlines, you may also consider providing your teacher with a sheet of information that highlights you. Teachers have many students, so they might not remember every little detail about every interaction they have ever had with you, so giving them some of your highlights can be helpful. You might type a list of your accomplishments in the class, stories you had with the specific teacher, your grades in the teacher’s class, how you grew in the class, why you liked the subject, if you want to go into this subject’s field as a career, what kind of student you were, and any other kinds of information you want to highlight.
5. Other Mentor Recommendation - coach, volunteering, job, extracurriculars. As mentioned, make sure the college you are applying to allows you to submit supplemental letters in addition to the required letters. If so, you could ask other adults in your life, like a sports coach, volunteering mentor, job supervisor, or other extracurricular advisors. Try to make sure that these supplemental recommenders are providing a new aspect of you to your application. You don't want your other mentor letter to reiterate the same information that your academic teacher letters are already providing to the admissions team.
6. Thank Your Recommenders
Make sure you thank your teachers and other recommenders! Your recommenders will probably let you know when they have submitted your letter, if not, then you should reach out to remind them that the deadlines are approaching. After they have submitted your letter, you should thank them - preferably face-to-face, but email is fine if you do not see this person often. If your school allows, many students often buy little gifts for their letter of recommendation writers, like a mug or candle, to show their gratitude.
After your college application process, keep these recommenders in the loop! Since they have spent their own time to write you a letter and support you in your college journey, they obviously care about you and want you to succeed. Keep you recommenders up-to-date about your life and let them know which colleges you are accepted into and where you decide to attend!
If you have any questions or would like to speak one-on-one about letters of recommendation, schedule a College and Career Coaching call with one of our Consultants today!
Rachel is the Founder of Study Hall College Consulting. Rachel graduated from UC Berkeley in May 2020 where she double majored in Cognitive Science and Legal Studies. For more application and essay tips, check out our Study Hall College Consulting website at: shcollegeconsulting.com.