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.

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 know:

  • What your character is like: Are you a person of integrity? Have you shown character traits that are important to college success, like resilience and grit?
  • What you’re like in class, or as a teammate: 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?
  • Whether 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 really are.
  • Whether you’ll 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?

Tips for Asking For a Letter of Recommendation

All that said, 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 college applications ask for letters of recommendation from specific people. Sometimes they want a letter to address a specific 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 invite your teacher or coach to connect with you so they can view your profile – 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. If your school uses a tool like Edmodo, share your request and all the relevant information with them via that tool, so it’s in the place they already know to look. Make it easy for them, and you’ll benefit. If you’re sending an email, put all the information in a single email.
  • Meet the 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.

Make building relationships a habit as early as high school. It’s a habit that 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.

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