If you’re a rising senior, you have lots to think about this fall. One important part of the application that’s often overlooked by high school students is letters of recommendation. How many will you need? Whom should you ask and when? What should they say about you?
For most private colleges and universities, you’ll likely need one to three letters of recommendation. The more selective the college, the more letters you’ll need. That said, there are some excellent colleges that don’t require any letters. (These are usually very large public institutions – they receive so many applications that they’ll make admissions decisions based on students’ grades, standardized test scores, essays and extracurricular activities – and not rely on recommendation letters.)
But if you’re applying to a college that requires letters of recommendation, here are 6 tips to consider:
1. Your school (or guidance) counselor will write your primary letter of recommendation. The counselor’s letter provides an overview of your rank or standing in your class, your rigor of curriculum compared to classmates and an evaluation of several criteria about you: your academic achievement, extracurricular accomplishments and personal qualities and character. (It’s always a good idea to get to know your school counselor.)
2. Submit the required number of recommendation letters (or the required number plus one). If a college asks for three letters, then submit three (or, at most, four). If the college requires two letters, submit just two or three. Admissions officers are busy! Do not send them too many letters. They can get a sense of how terrific you are with just a few letters; and if they can’t, perhaps you’ve asked the wrong people to write letters on your behalf.
3. Try to ask teachers who know you best (and in upper-year courses). If you’ve had a teacher more than once, then that teacher should know you pretty well. If you’ve had a teacher in junior or senior year, that’s even better. You want teachers to evaluate who you are as you head into college; the student (and person) you were as a freshman could be very different from who you are as a senior.
4. Request letters from teachers in academic subjects that match your interests. If you are considering majoring in science or engineering, request at least one letter from a science or math teacher. If you’re interested in architecture, have your art teacher write a letter. If you indicate on your application that you’ll likely study humanities or the social sciences, have an English or history teacher write a letter. (You get the point.) And, if you’re undecided on a major, but leaning towards particular areas of study, you would be wise to ask teachers in those areas to write your letters.
5. Provide your letter writers with a resume and paragraph of your academic interests. Even if you know your teachers and counselor well, they will be writing lots of other letters, so they might need some reminders from you about what you want to study (and why). A resume also provides them with context about what you’ve done in your four years of high school. (Think about it: Some teachers might only know you in their classroom and would be pleasantly surprised to know you founded the environmental club and volunteered at a soup kitchen. It could reinforce the points that they wanted to make about you as a genuine person who cared for others, for example.)
6. Say thank you! Many students forget to thank their teachers and counselors. Sure, you’ll (hopefully!) be grateful and say thank you, but it’s better to buy or make thank you cards and hand-write a note of thanks. (It’ll prove to them that all the great things they said about you are in fact true.)
If you asked your teachers before the school year ended, terrific – be sure to keep them informed of your college plans when you return to school in August or September. You should stay on top of this because you don’t want all parts of your application submitted except for the letters – that will hold up your application and it won’t be evaluated if it’s incomplete. If you haven’t yet asked any teachers, send an email over the summer or ask them right away in the fall semester