30 Oct Those pesky Letters of Recommendation
By Lee Shulman Bierer
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 them? Why are they important? And, how do you prepare recommenders to write the best letter possible?
Who? Letters of recommendation are the most powerful when they are written by teachers, coaches, club, 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.
What? 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 best letters are those that share personal anecdotes about you and reveal the less tangible, yet important, 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.
Where? Many colleges will now accept letters of recommendation electronically either on their own applications or through the Common Application. Follow directions carefully and don’t send more than a college requests. Colleges that participate in the Common Application detail how many letters of recommendation they require and how many they allow.
When? It is best to ask teachers early; I usually recommend the first ask in the spring of junior year. If you are a senior and are just now getting around to asking teachers for letters of recommendation, you will be subject to their timeline.
So, juniors, try and ask in the spring and 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 have colleges with early deadlines (October 15 and November 1), make sure you provide your recommenders with at least a month’s time to write the letters.
Why? Letters of recommendation can often be the critical tipping factor when two candidates present similarly and colleges can only pick one.
How? There’s a good chance that the more information you provide your recommender, the better the letter will be. I suggest that all students prepare an Activity Resume or a Brag Sheet that details the following items: extracurricular activities; community service involvement; leadership positions; honors, scholarship and awards; employment; internships and job shadowing experiences and what you’ve done during your last three summers.
- Be certain to waive your right to view recommendation letters on your application forms. Admission officers will trust them more if you haven’t seen them.
- Send thank you notes once you know the colleges have received the letters of recommendation.