Managing Letters of Recommendation

Letters of Recommendation (LOR’s) shouldn’t be treated as mere boxes to be checked off on a to-do list because they play an important role in the admissions process. Colleges rely on LOR’s to provide context to applicant profiles in ways that other types of documentation cannot. Since admission to top colleges is competitive, the quality of LOR’s may be the difference between acceptance and rejection.

A key aspect of a student’s admission strategy is the core message. This consists of the one or two distinctive personal attributes that the application, essays, LOR’s, and interviews will emphasize to make the applicant stand out against the competition. Students should ensure that their LOR’s convey their core message in a way that’s compatible with all other submissions to the college.

Why LOR’s Are Important

Over 15% of top colleges view LOR’s as “highly important” in admission decisions and more than half consider them “moderately important”, according to research conducted by the National Association of College Admission Counseling (NACAC).

Colleges views LOR’s as an important part of the process because:

  1. LOR’s, like essays, provide depth to an applicant’s holistic profile beyond the cold data in their academic record.
  2. LOR’s can confirm an applicant’s core message through the testimony of teachers as independent but knowledgeable third parties.
  3. LOR’s allow admissions officers to assume that if a teacher speaks glowingly about an applicant, especially regarding academic potential, that applicant is likely to succeed in college.

Students can manage LOR’s to a greater extent than most of them think possible or necessary. They should devote the same amount of time to LOR’s that they do to essays, personal statements, and interviews.

Who To Ask for a LOR

The most important aspect of LOR planning is identifying the best teachers to ask. Applicants need to find potential recommenders who can be positive, specific, and enthusiastic about them. Student should seek teachers who know them and like them well enough to give them a categorically favorable endorsement. A lackluster LOR can harm an applicant’s chances and a poor one can have a devastating effect.

The most desirable LOR’s are from 11th grade teachers. Colleges value input from them because they have experience in teaching the applicant for a full academic year. LOR’s from teachers in core courses are preferred, especially if the courses are in the student’s defined area of academic interest. English teachers are also desirable because writing proficiency and reading comprehension contribute strongly to success in most collegiate fields of study. Applicants should not submit more than the number of LOR’s requested by a college

The teachers solicited for LOR’s should be able to address not just whether the applicant is an exceptional student, but, if possible, such other factors as the applicant’s leadership traits, ability to deal with adversity, contributions to class discussions, and intellectual curiosity. If the teacher can attest to the fact that the student is also a kind, considerate, and likeable person, so much the better.

Even though the Common Application allows LOR’s to be submitted after the application deadline, a student should never find themselves approaching the deadline without having made arrangements for their LOR’s. Teachers need at least two months advance notice to produce a standard letter and more than that to produce a truly effective one.

High School Guidance Counselors

In addition to forwarding a transcript, it’s common for guidance counselors to submit a letter to a college regarding the applicant. At some colleges, a counselor’s letter is considered more important than a teacher’s.

A counselor’s submission is less subjective than a teacher’s but provides a broader view of the student. It covers accomplishments over the duration of high school and describes how the student fit within the school’s demographics, curriculum, and test scores. It also explains any special circumstances that impacted the student.

Guidance counselors also submit a profile of the high school that includes such information as the size of the graduating class, the grading scale, an overview of the curriculum, the AP courses offered, and the percentage of graduating students who go on to attend two- and four-year colleges.

Managing the LOR Process

Below are steps that can be taken by students to improve the chances that their LOR’s will have a positive impact on admissions.

  1. Ask Early: Since 11th grade teachers are preferred, ask them early in the spring semester of that year. By then, there’s been enough time for a teacher to get to know the student and vice versa. If a teacher even hesitates regarding a student’s worthiness, he should look elsewhere.
  1. Help Letter Writers: A recommendation letter should never be a cast of the dice because of uncertainty regarding what the teacher will write. The student should set up a meeting with a planned LOR writer late in junior year. At the meeting, he should provide and leave behind a letter reminding the teacher of how well they performed in their class. He should attach a graded paper or exam to the letter. The student should also identify the colleges to which they plan to apply and state their educational and career goals.
  1. Discussion: The student should have a frank discussion with the teacher about the personal attributes that he would like the teacher to highlight in the letter and specific facts to include. This enables recommenders to write a detailed and strategically complementary narrative.
  1. If They Ask — Be Ready: Due to their busy schedules, teachers will often accept a draft written by the student in order to facilitate the writing of the LOR. Many teachers will produce a final LOR that reflects this draft almost verbatim. The student should have a draft of the LOR with them in case the teacher asks for it or indicates that she would welcome one.
  1. Reminders: Teachers often forget LOR submission deadlines. The student should ask if it will be okay to remind them. She will probably say yes, so she won’t be annoyed when the student does so.
  1. Express Gratitude: Students should send a “Thank You” note to the teacher when they agree to write the LOR and another one when it has been submitted. The teacher should be thanked a third time if the student is accepted by one or more of the colleges that received the LOR.

Although a student cannot follow this process for a guidance counselor, he should arrange a meeting late in junior year to answer questions and make a case for the  counselor to submit positive comments about the student.