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Recommendation Letters Are More Important Than Ever

For many students, requesting letters of recommendation is low on the college application priority list. This, though, is a mistake. The latest research from the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) places letters of recommendation on par with students’ essays, demonstrated interest, class rank, and extracurriculars. Recommendation letters, then, should not be an afterthought; they should be a priority.

Asking for a Rec Letter

When you consider who should write your recommendation letter, prioritize using the following criteria:

1. Choose someone who knows you and who wants to see you succeed.

This is, by far, the most important criterion. Your recommendation letter should not be rote and impersonal – it should show clearly that the person writing the letter cares about your future. More and more, universities are looking to admit students who clearly exhibit their unique personality traits. Your grades and test scores will get you through the first review layers, but you will need to demonstrate your distinctiveness to gain admission. You can’t expect your college admissions officer to get to know you if your recommender doesn’t know you.

2. Choose someone who taught, coached, or mentored you recently.

At a minimum, you should choose someone who taught you, coached you, or mentored you in your sophomore year – ideally, you’ll choose someone from your junior year. If you are a senior presenting a letter from your freshman year English teacher, the letter is more likely to raise questions like, Why couldn’t you find someone who taught you more recently? The farther back you go, the less impactful your letter will be.

3. Choose at least one teacher who teaches a core subject.

Colleges are most interested in how well you’ve performed academically, and admissions officers understand classes like “English Composition”, “World History”, and “Biology”. Plus, some colleges require students to include recommendations from teachers in core subject areas. You might as well have one at the ready.

4. If you submit multiple letters, choose recommenders who complement one another.

Different people in your life will be able to highlight different strengths. If you have a recommendation letter from your Trigonometry teacher, for instance, you might supplement that with a letter from your art teacher.

Most teachers and other mentors will be honored that you sought them ought for a recommendation.

Rec Letter Rules to Live By

1. Don’t procrastinate.

Ideally, you will ask for recommendation letters late in your junior year. This will accomplish a few things: first, and most importantly, it will keep you from having to rush your recommender… which, let’s face it, is just rude. Second, it will allow your recommender time to write and rewrite your letter – this will undoubtedly make for a better recommendation. Third, if you ask well in advance of your peers, your recommender will be able to focus on you; especially if your recommender is a popular teacher who is likely to be approached by numerous students, this may be very important.

2. Schedule in person.

Unless your recommender now lives in a different city, ask in person. It makes a good impression and shows that you actually appreciate your recommender. If you send a “Will u write me a rec letter?” text, you’re basically saying, “I can’t be bothered to ask you in person, but will you spend hours and hours of your time to sing my praises?” If you respectfully ask for a recommendation in person, this will carry a much better impression. Ask in advance to schedule a short 5-10 minute meeting; this will show that you respect your recommender’s time, and it will allow your recommender to ask you questions and discuss his/her methodology (if applicable – see below).

3. Respect your recommender’s methodology.

The more beloved the recommender, the more requests he/she is likely to receive. Popular teachers, coaches, counselors, etc. will likely have developed a system over the years. Be sure to respect that system. If someone askes you to complete a questionnaire, submit an official recommendation request through a website, or even write up your own letter that he/she can edit, do it.

4. Send a follow-up email.

If your recommender says yes, assist the process by sending a follow-up email. It doesn’t have to be entailed, and it doesn’t have to contain beautiful prose. Just follow this simple format:

  • Subject: Letter of Recommendation Follow-Up (Deadline: MM/DD)

  • Intro: Dear Mr./Mrs./Ms. Doe,

  • Body, which should include the following:

    • A sincere thank-you

    • A sentence like, “I want to make the process easier for you, so I have included my resume and a list of questions and answers that I thought might be helpful.”

    • A paragraph outlining why you appreciate your recommender, what you got from the class (if your recommender is a teacher), and what you hope to have contributed to class

    • A bullet-list of the important things that any recommender should include:

      • Schools to which you’re applying

      • Deadline for your recommendation letter

      • Major (if chosen)

      • Career aspirations

      • GPA

  • Attachments:

5. Send a Thank You note.

Even if your recommender loves you – perhaps especially if your recommender loves you – rec letters can be grueling work. If someone goes above and beyond for you, be sure to show your appreciation.

At the end of the day, it's not complicated - stick to tried-and-true when it comes to the recommendation letter process: be respectful, be timely, and be gracious.

- Randy Biggs

Owner, Heritage College Prep

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