Believe it or not, letters of recommendation (LORs) can have a tremendous impact on your admission chances, if you seek out the right people and if you apply to schools that actually read them.
I used to advise students that they should send as many strong letters as they could along with their applications. However, this would be wrong advice today. Admissions counselors want what they want—nothing more. While there are certainly exceptions, and often students can read between the lines of a college’s LOR policy, my advice is simply to follow the guidelines. Colleges use different verbiage when stating how they suggest students submit letters, and a careful reading of these sentences could be critical.
Many colleges require just one “school letter” and one letter from a teacher. Many students will have their guidance counselors prepare the “school letter,” but need to determine who is the best representative to write the second letter.
From my experience in listening to several information sessions recently and having the chance to speak with admissions counselors, I have learned a few things about LOR submission. First of all, keep in mind that the people who work on a college’s admissions staff are overworked and tired of reading extra material—they read all day! Additionally, both the top-tier universities and smaller colleges will typically read everything you send to their offices. Therefore, if you send one teacher letter that is phenomenal and a second that is just pretty good, you really only want colleges to read the first letter. This is an important distinction for you to recognize because, as much as incredible letters can set you apart from other applicants who are equally qualified, letters that are merely “okay” will make your reader’s eyes glaze over. The decision of whether to send any letters beyond the number a college absolutely requires should be very well considered; you want admissions counselors to read only the very best.
Here are a few common questions I receive from my students and their families on this topic.
So, how do you go about choosing the teachers to write your LORs? A good teacher for this job should have many key qualities. The ideal writer is someone who taught you in an academic class during your junior or senior year in high school—and perhaps additionally as an underclassman too. If the teacher is also the advisor of a club/coach of a team with which you’re involved, that person becomes an even better choice. Most importantly and above all other factors, you want to choose a teacher whose subject makes sense or aligns with your “intended major,” and who knows you really well. It is much better to seek a letter from a writer who knows you well and taught the class for which you received a ‘B’ than a teacher who barely knows you but gave you a higher grade.
When do you drop the question? The spring of your junior year is the ideal time to make an LOR request, though you should begin planning on who you will ask much earlier in the year. By the spring, most teachers are done writing for the current seniors, and they are not yet overburdened by the volume of letters they will be expected to write in the fall for current juniors. When asking for LORs, I suggest that you take the time to meet with each teacher and ask him/her personally to write for you. If the teacher agrees, you should follow up by providing a “resume” of interactions with him/her, special projects you completed, or other anecdotal experiences you shared together. This list can jog the teacher’s memory about you as a student when they sit down to compose a letter. For example, let’s say you excelled in related rates problems in Precalculus and you met with your teacher after school to discuss them further than you had gone in class. You could mention this participation in your “resume” for your math teacher. Although some may disagree, I do not think you need to give your “recommender teacher(s)” your real resume of extracurricular activities because you really want the reader to learn about your impact in the classroom from this letter. You may consider giving this appropriate extracurricular list to your guidance counselor, but your teacher should really just focus on you as a student and potentially as a club participant/athlete or leader if he/she is the advisor.
What about the other letters? Students often get caught up attempting to determine who could write an “outside” LOR, or someone who is not affiliated with their high school. Please remember that your writer’s title means next to nothing—it’s all about the relationship the two of you have established. I have had students say, “My uncle knows the president of such and such company, and he said that ‘said person’ would write a letter for me!” When I ask how well my student knows this person, often they have never even met. This is not a good writer choice for you because colleges want to get to know you, and this task cannot effectively be accomplished by a practical stranger. Colleges will not care that you know an executive or famous person peripherally. On the other hand, if you have a relationship with someone who can speak to you as a person, that individual’s input may be extremely helpful for the admissions staff reading your application. For example, one of my students decided to ask her boss at camp. This woman has literally watched her grow up as a camper, successfully complete the camp’s CIT program, and, finally, work there full time. My student’s boss watched countless interactions with eight and nine-year-old girls, how she dealt with conflict, and how she overcame bunk struggles.
Assuming you waive your rights to read your letters of recommendation before they are submitted, the most important thing to remember is that you want to choose people who will best write about you. What can colleges find out if they look beyond your academic statistics?