The What, When, Who, and How of College Recommendation Letters
Updated: May 25
Letters of recommendation (LORs) provide context to a student's college application. And context, along with flexibility, is the word dujour for the upcoming application season.
LORs during the year of the asterisk*
The grades, activities, and test scores a student has at the end of their junior year are normally the foundation of their college applications. This year, that foundation carries a big asterisk. Yes, admissions representatives will be flexible, will consider the unique circumstances of applicants, will read applications through the lens of context, looking for insight into their applicants. Positive letters of recommendation provide this insight and are a great way for a student to stand out among this year's sea of *starburst symbols.*
Colleges request LORs because they provide the story behind the courses and grades listed on the student's transcript--they give specific information about the student's personality characteristics, strength of character, and work ethic. Read on to learn what college-bound students need to know about LORs and how to request them.
LORs share a perspective of the student not shown in the other parts of the application. Ideally, LORs should help set a student's application apart from other applications, and demonstrate what makes the student a unique candidate for the college.
Letters of Recommendation FAQ
How many LORs should students have?
It depends on the college and can range from none to three.
Not all colleges require letters of recommendation. Colleges also vary in the number and type of recommendation. In general, the more selective colleges and colleges that perform "holistic" admissions ask for LORs as part of the application process.
Many colleges in Washington State do not require LORs - Washington State University and the University of Washington do not. Western Washington, does not require the LOR, but encourage applicants to send it if they have one. Students should check the requirements for the schools on their list. Some colleges, in addition to specifying the number of LORs, may ask for a letter from a teacher in a specific subject.
The typical application requirements used in previous years may change for the class of 2021, given the COVID-inspired test-optional status of some colleges. It's important to verify the requirement on each college's website.
What is the difference between a Teacher LOR and a Counselor LOR?
The teacher letter of recommendation provides the colleges with insight into an applicant's abilities, strengths, and accomplishments as a student. Teachers may write about specific interactions with students or instances in which the student demonstrated intellectual curiosity, improvement, collaborative skills, etc. These letters help the colleges evaluate if the student is a good academic fit for their institution.
The counselor letter of recommendation offers an understanding of the student in the context of the entire class. High schools vary widely in terms of course rigor and student body. The counselor letter helps colleges to compare students to their classmates – so they have a context to evaluate the student's grades and other accomplishments. Counselors usually submit the LOR along with the school's profile -- a summary of information about the school's student body, course offerings, and grading system. The counselor letter may also explain discrepancies in a student's transcript -- the reason behind a dip in GPA, for example. They may also explain the positive impact a student has had on their school community.
Some colleges allow students to submit letters of recommendation in the category of “outside recommenders.” These can be a coach or a teacher who is not an instructor for one of the core classes, but someone who knows the student well. An employer or mentor may also fall into this category.
A note about famous folk and alumnus
A letter of recommendation from a person of status, such as a celebrity, will only be of benefit if they know the student well. Letters from alumnus generally carry weight only if that alumnus made significant monetary or academic contributions to the school or to the specific department the student is applying to, and even then, they need to actually know the student beyond being the daughter of my partner's brother.
When considering who to ask - students should ask themselves, “Does this person add new information to my overall application, giving admissions readers additional insight into my character?" (As a learner, community member, teammate, employee, musician, volunteer, etc.?)
How many LORs are needed?
Most schools ask for one or two teacher recommendations and one school counselor recommendation. I usually advise students to request letters from two teachers, to cover their bases.
Which teachers should a student ask?
Students should put some thought into the teachers they ask. Ideally, the teacher is someone who knows the student fairly well and can speak positively about them.
Ask teachers who have taught the student in 11th or 12th grade.
Ask teachers of academic (not elective) subjects -- math, English, science, history, and foreign language. However, if a student is planning to study or major in an elective subject like art or music, one of the two letters could be from a teacher in the elective content area. It's best to ask for letters from teachers in different academic content areas -- one in math/science and one in English/humanities to avoid duplication in the type of content they write about. If only one letter is required, students with STEM aspirations should ask a science or math teacher.
Often students think they should ask their favorite teacher or the teacher who gave them an A to write their LOR. This may not always be the case. A teacher's perspective working of their experience with a student who struggled to earn a B in a challenging course provides insight into the strength of character and intellectual perseverance that may put the student in a better light than a letter describing a student who easily obtained an A in an less challenging class.
Writing is a skill...it's helpful if the teacher students ask is known to write well or known to write good letters of recommendation. Sometimes counselors can provide insight.
When should LORs be requested?
The end of the junior year is a great time to approach teachers. This gives students time to find out if the teacher might want any specific materials (e.g., a writing sample, resume, etc.) and how they would prefer to move forward. Some teachers may suggest a meeting to discuss the letter while for others providing them with additional information about the student and their interests and activities is enough. Many high schools have forms students are to complete that highlight this sort of content. Check your school's college and career website pages.
If waiting until the fall to ask, know that teachers and counselors typically need four weeks notification prior to submission of the LOR.
How to ask
Normally, I advise students to ask in person. However, these days, I'd suggest signing up for an office hours call. An email request would be the last option, as it's the least personal.
When students make the request they should specify that they are asking if the teacher would be willing to write them a "positive" letter of recommendation -- the goal is to avoid a lackluster LOR.
If the teacher declines...
Students should not take this personally. Teachers have a lot on their plates and some are inundated with requests, some simply may not have the time. Some may just feel they do not know you well, or they may not feel they could write a strong letter. Simply thank the teacher for their time and move on to asking another teacher.
If the teacher accepts...
Once the teacher has agreed, students should make the process as easy as possible and
provide the following:
the deadlines the letters are needed by (the college application deadline)
a list of the colleges they are applying to
submission guidelines or materials (see below)
a student summary (brag sheet)
If students are requesting LORs in the spring, and their college list is not yet finalized, they can provide the earliest likely deadline, a tentative list and indicate that they will follow up in the fall or via email over the summer.
How are LORs submitted to colleges?
the majority of LORs are submitted online via the Common Application or Naviance. In general, if a student is applying to the college via the Common Application, teachers and counselors upload their letters directly to the Common Application website. If the high school uses the college planning program Naviance, the LORs are uploaded to that platform.
For colleges who do not use the Common Application, students should refer to the colleges' websites for sending letters of rec and provide pre-addressed and stamped envelops to the teachers.
How to get a great LOR
Some teachers may have a form they request students complete. If they do not,
make it easy as possible for them to present a positive, unique, and individualized recommendation. Give them:
A resume of activities (9th grade on)
A list of current classes
An interaction sheet, which is where the student describes past events or interactions from a time in that teacher’s class. This will help the teacher recall specific characteristics or anecdotes about the student.
Assignment samples from when the student was in class, or a written synopsis of the student's favorite or most memorable projects.
A brief synopsis of goals and interests.
Some schools provide forms/brag sheets for students to fill out. I find this form covers most of the important information. Feel free to use it.
Common Application LOR Guidance
Students will assign and invite their counselor and teachers to submit letters of recommendation via the Common Application. Note, this is not to be confused with actually asking the teacher or counselor to write the recommendation. This step within the Common App merely enables the electronic submission process. Students will need to know the recommender's full name and correct email address.
In the Common App, students will be asked if they want to waive the right to review confidential letters of recommendation. This is called the FERPA Waiver. It's recommended that students waive their FERPA rights for LORS, otherwise colleges may question the authenticity and truthfulness of the recommendations. Plus some recommenders may decline to write letters if the rights are not waived.
Once recommenders have agreed to write the student's letters, the student should provide the teacher/counselor with the necessary materials as soon as possible and thank them.
Two weeks prior to the recommendation due date, reach out and thank the teacher in advance for completing the letter, which is due on (remind them of the date). Ask if they need any additional information.
Check the Common App or the college's application portal to be sure the teacher submitted the application. If the student notices that the letter has not yet been submitted, they can send a friendly reminder note -- "I wanted to let you know that I submitted my application to XXXX University. Thanks again for writing my letter of recommendation."
Within a week of the teacher submitting the LOR, send them a thank you note (handwritten is always nice) or email for taking the time and effort.
Recommendation letters are just one part of a student's college application, but they provide critical context and give admission readers insight into why the student would be a good fit for their college, especially during this asterisk year.
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