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Don鈥檛 make any of these 8 mistakes when asking for letters of recommendation

How to ask for letters of recommendation for your college application 鈥 8 critical pieces of advice

Amy Tiberio, Vice President for Enrollment Management

Many colleges will require one or more letters of recommendation as part of the application process. The reason is because the perspective of those with whom you learn, work, interact, and serve is helpful in understanding your strengths, character, and potential. Often these letters give valuable insight into aspects of a student that we do not get from your essay, activities list, and transcript. Descriptions about your work ethic, your willingness to ask for help when you need it, the ways that you stepped up as a quiet leader, the ways you learned from past stumbles, etc. are all valuable.

Knowing how these letters are used is important because it helps you select the right people to write your recommendations. Let鈥檚 walk through some advice and best practices for identifying recommenders and asking them to write your letters.

  1. It鈥檚 not really about how impressive the recommender is, it鈥檚 about how well they really know you. It鈥檚 common to see students submit a letter from a public figure, but also glaringly obvious when that person doesn鈥檛 know you well at all. The letter sounds very generic and does no benefit to the student. We are not so interested in how impressive your network is, rather we want to hear from someone who can attest to your strengths and future potential.
  2. Make the ask well in advance of deadlines, and ideally in the timeframe of your interaction with this person. We advise that you reach out at least 4 weeks in advance of the college application deadline. It鈥檚 a good amount of work for someone to write a letter, and adults are busy people. Give them plenty of time and offer gentle reminders or check-ins as you near the deadline. If you are early on in your college search, strongly consider asking for letters of recommendation when you interact with people who would speak highly of you. For example, if you really clicked with a teacher in the fall of your junior year, don鈥檛 be afraid to ask for a letter at that time even if you don鈥檛 yet know where you鈥檒l be applying. When their memory is fresh, the letter will be better and easier for them to write.
  3. Have your recommender submit the letter directly to each of your colleges, or deliver to you in a sealed envelope for you to send in. Recommendation letters should be written with the integrity that the student has not influenced the content in any way. If the recommender wishes to share a copy of the letter with the student after they鈥檝e written it, that鈥檚 up to them. But, admission counselors may be weary of a letter that is submitted by the student versus directly by the recommender.
  4. Ask someone who knows you more recently. The person you are now is likely far more evolved and mature than the person you were in middle school. While you may have had a really great relationship with someone you knew at age 12, colleges are interested in who you are now.
  5. Most colleges expect a letter from your school counselor and one from a teacher. If only one letter is required, you鈥檒l want to submit the person who has the most holistic view. Some students find that their school counselor does not know them particularly well. Sometimes school counselors are assigned to hundreds of students, and thus it鈥檚 impossible to build a relationship with each and every one. We will not penalize a student for having a counselor recommendation that indicates that they do not know the student well because of caseload. If this is true for you, then you will likely want to send at least one other recommendation letter from someone who can speak more deeply and thoroughly about you.
  6. Perhaps don鈥檛 ask the teacher who gave you the A+. We often get better insight from the teachers of the classes that were more challenging for you. These teachers know how you respond to setbacks, how and when you ask for help, how you use your resources - all important experiences and qualities.
  7. Consider quality versus quantity. It鈥檚 important to make note of how many recommendation letters are required by each college to which you are applying, but you may opt to send additional letters beyond this. You may think more equals better, but this is not the case. So, when is it appropriate to send optional, additional letters of recommendation? The best practice is to do so when these letters offer a distinct insight from that of the required letters/recommenders. For example, if you have been promoted to a shift supervisor at your part-time job, your boss likely has different insights than that of your counselor and teacher.
  8. Don鈥檛 let your recommenders simply reiterate your activities list or transcript. We see those items in your application and don鈥檛 need them relisted here. What we really want is the story behind how you鈥檝e accomplished things, how you鈥檝e overcome challenges, what assets you have, and how you contribute to your various communities. 

Choose your recommenders wisely using this advice, and don鈥檛 be afraid to use this article to help them understand how important their words are and to help guide their letter writing. Never hesitate to reach out to us directly with any specific questions or for more guidance!

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