Now is the time to think about who you’re going to ask for letters of recommendation

I used to insist that students make an appointment with their teachers after school to request, in person, a letter of recommendation. I used to tell them to read the teacher’s body language to make sure they would look at this as an honor and not just a chore.

But now… – it does seem like that is the preamble to much of our virtual advice… students must request their letters of recommendation through email. Since there is no way see reactions, etc., students need to put more effort into their request emails. It’s important for them to share why they have selected this specific teacher and how their class impacted them.

Letters of recommendation carry varying weight, depending on the perspective of the college or university and who writes them. The 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? Why are they important? And, how do you prepare your recommenders to write the best letter possible?


Letters of recommendation are the most powerful when they are written by teachers, coaches, club or internship advisors, youth group advisors or employers who know you well. 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. Read instructions carefully since some colleges may specifically request a science or math teacher, especially if you’re applying to an engineering program.


Since most letters of recommendation are glowing  and full of praise for the applicant, colleges that take them seriously are trying to get beneath the surface of who you are. The letters that share personal anecdotes about you reveal the less tangible qualities that a college can’t deduce from grades and test scores. A well-written letter of recommendation will showcase your abilities and make you a compelling candidate.


There are over 650 colleges are members of the Common Application. It’s likely that most, if not all, of your schools will request that letters of recommendation are sent electronically. Follow directions carefully and don’t send more than a college requests. Colleges who participate in the Common Application detail how many letters of recommendation they require and how many they allow from teachers and non-teachers.

NEXT WEEK: Letters of Recommendation – Part 2

Bierer is an independent college adviser based in Charlotte. Send questions to:;