A letter of recommendation will never outweigh a student’s performance in the classroom, but it can be a tipping factor in the college admissions process.
Recommendations carry varying weight, depending on who writes them and the perspective of the college or university. More selective colleges may ask for two or three recommendation letters.
Questions abound: Who should you ask? What are they used for? Where do they go? When should you ask for them? Why are they important? And, how do you prepare recommenders to write the best letter possible?
Who to ask?
Letters of recommendation are most powerful when they are written by teachers, coaches, club or internship advisers, youth group advisers or employers who know you well.
Colleges put the most weight on letters of recommendation from course subject teachers (English, math, history, science and foreign language). Students can ask their elective teachers (marketing, theatre, etc.), but it should be a second or third letter, not their primary one, since some colleges only allow one letter of recommendation.
There are three types of letters of recommendation:
1.) The teacher recommendation
2.) A letter of recommendation from a non-core subject teacher (art, music, etc.) or a coach, club adviser or employer
3.) The guidance counselor recommendation. Students don’t customarily need to ask their guidance counselor to write this letter since it is a basic component of every college application.
Things to consider when choosing who to ask:
- Consider your future major – If you are thinking about majoring in journalism, an English teacher makes more sense than your AP Physics teacher. Read instructions carefully since some colleges may specifically request a science or math teacher, especially if you’re applying to an engineering program.
- Evaluate who can help you most – Receiving an “A” in a class or picking your favorite teacher should not be determining factors. Very often the class where you may have struggled at first and demonstrated your perseverance is a better choice. That teacher will probably write a stronger letter because they will share their perceptions of your work ethic and your contribution to the class.
Praise is a relative concept. While virtually all letters of recommendation praise the candidate – surprisingly, there are a few that don’t – some letters are much more effective than others.
The people you ask should be able to describe your skills and your accomplishments, as well as your personality. Colleges prefer letters from junior year teachers since they are the most familiar with your most recent work.
When to ask?
It is best to ask teachers in the spring of junior year if they are willing and able to write a letter on your behalf. If they say “yes”, then ask them about their preferred timelines. Some teachers like to take care of the letters over the summer, and others want a true summer vacation.
If you are applying to colleges with early deadlines (Oct. 15 and Nov. 1), make sure you provide your recommenders with at least a month’s time to write the letters. Unfortunately, students frequently wait to ask until right before the applications are due, and many teachers – especially the most popular ones – are already booked up. They apologize for having to say “no,” but missing out on having your favorite teacher write your letter of recommendation often makes the college application process more stressful.