For most high-school students, college applications are the first time they’ll ask for a letter of recommendation. But it likely won’t be the last time, since many job applications require letters of recommendation as well. So the process you follow for college is a good learning experience and teaches a skill that can be very valuable later in life.
For students applying to college in the next couple of years, in the shadow of COVID-19, these letters will matter more than ever since colleges will have less objective evidence of a student’s academic performance. The spring semester of 2020 will see many schools moving to pass/fail or other attenuated grading systems, and many colleges are moving to be test-optional or disregarding standardized test results altogether.
Why Colleges Ask for Letters of Recommendation
Colleges ask for letters of recommendation to learn something about you that they can’t easily get from your transcripts, test scores, or résumé. Specifically, they want to understand:
- Your Character: Are you a person of integrity? Have you shown character traits that are important to college success, like resilience and grit?
- Your Class Participation: Do you participate a lot in class, or relatively little? Do you speak up, or are you shy? Are you a leader on your team?
- Your Intellectual Traits: Do you have traits colleges value, like leadership, initiative, or academic curiosity? Colleges want to know how you showed creativity on an assignment, or how you organized a group to solve a problem. Those kinds of stories say a lot about who you are.
- Academic Capacity: Will be able to handle the academic work the university will require of you? Students sometimes get good grades just due to the amount of help they get from tutors or parents. But colleges want to know how much you’re capable of the work yourself. Can you handle the strain of a full academic course load at college easily?
- Ability to Overcome Challenges: Have you faced and overcome challenges, either academic or personal? A good letter of recommendation will talk about how a student responded to adversity, as that is an important factor in admissions decisions.
Who Should You Ask?
The best recommenders, as Skye Telka, a college admissions counselor for Warren Wilson College, says, are from writers who “obviously know their students and can speak with authenticity and conviction about the students.” That means you should ask teachers or coaches who know you well, and with whom you have a good relationship. These relationships can help drive the level of detail in a letter of recommendation. Detail, both positive and negative, is important in a letter of recommendation.
Tips for Asking For a Letter of Recommendation
Here are some key tips students should be aware of as they approach this process.
- Start Early: For college admissions, as in life, the process of getting a recommendation starts long before you ask. Build relationships with teachers in school. If it’s a subject you enjoy or a teacher you have a good connection with, build a relationship that could eventually lead to a letter of recommendation.
- Look Carefully at the Requirements: Sometimes, colleges ask for letters of recommendation from specific people. Sometimes they want a recommendation to address a particular topic, especially if you are applying to study the sciences, math, or visual and performing arts. If so, make sure you follow the rules.
- Give the Writer All the Relevant Information: Create a complete, well-written résumé and send it to your recommender. Then they can see everything about you—academics, extracurriculars, colleges, and majors—all in one place, and write a letter that best encapsulates their case for you. If you need help finding a good résumé template, please ask us.
- Make it Easy for Your Recommender: Don’t make the writers search through their email to find your résumé or the requirements for the letter. Make it easy for them, and you’ll benefit. If you’re sending an email, put all the information in a single email.
- Respect Your Recommender’s Deadlines: Many teachers have individual deadlines as to when they need all the information for a recommendation. Many also have a maximum number of letters they will agree to write. So ask early, and when you do, make sure you ask when the teacher needs the material. And be sure to be on time.
Building relationships is a habit you can start creating as early as high school. It will pay off in spades over a lifetime. No matter what career or field of study you pursue, relationships drive success. And those relationships pay off when it comes time to ask for recommendations.