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Think Strategically About Your Letters of Recommendation and Your Potential Letter Writers

What is a “Letter of Recommendation”?

A letter of recommendation is a communication written by an individual who is selected by the student (“recommender”). These letters are considered “confidential” and students do not typically view the letters unless the recommender decides to share. The letter is most often sent to the college via the application portal or emailed directly to the admissions office. Not all colleges require letters of recommendation, so it is critical that students determine what is expected by each of their schools. Students should discuss with their college advisor the best way to leverage their letters of recommendation as part of their application process.

Note that while there are some colleges that do not require any letters at all, they may still accept letters, which can enhance your application and demonstrate your extra effort. If you are applying through the Common Application, you can easily check the requirements under RECOMMENDERS. It is important to develop your college list early and work from those requirements. 

Why are recommendation letters important?

The goal of a recommendation letter is to humanize you: to tell admissions officials about you as a person, as well as a student, and to describe your character.

Usually, students request three letters – two from teachers in core academic subjects and one from a counselor or administrator (e.g., school counselor, principal, or dean). The recommendation letters should be from educators who know the student well and have taught him or her in the last two years of rigorous academic courses. 

The teacher recommendation is a way to demonstrate that a student cares about learning and is ready to add thoughtful insights and contributions to the classroom and broader community. 

The counselor letter can provide a look into a student’s life, their personal goals or challenges, and any other information that describes a student’s life outside of the classroom.

Again, there are many competitive colleges that REQUIRE teacher recommendations as well as counselor recommendations for a complete application. Be sure to check the requirements of each college.

Letters of recommendation in the time of COVID-19: 

Due to the COVID pandemic, many colleges have gone “test optional” and are not requiring SAT or ACT test scores for first-year college applicants. Without this information, schools must consider other pieces of the application with higher regard. Letters of recommendation have thus become more important. Students should pay attention to this, work to develop key relationships and, overall, think strategically about how to maximize the usefulness of recommendation letters in order to stand out.

We encourage students to get to know their teachers and counselors— especially throughout their junior year— and to find creative ways to connect even if they must do so remotely. 

The question on many students’ minds is: “How can I build rapport with teachers to facilitate effective teacher recommendations while distance learning?”

Here are some tips for securing strong letters from teachers and counselors:

  1. Choose your letter writers carefully. Do you have an active interest in a particular class? Is there a teacher that you feel is more willing to develop a relationship with you?
  2. Make frequent appointments. Teachers and counselors have office hours. Meet with them early and often.
  3. Visibility can go a long way. This may sound simple, but if you are an on-line learner, turn your camera on once in a while. It is discouraging for teachers to teach to a screen full of black muted squares! Teachers are encouraged by participation.
  4. Take the microphone off mute.  Students are more memorable when they ask or answer questions “in person” or in the virtual classroom. 
  5. Have a list of questions ready to go. Ask teachers to clarify the lessons or discuss ideas with them. Find out if there are any “after school” projects or clubs you can join or assist.
  6. Host an online extracurricular club. Form a social connection beyond the classroom and ask a favorite teacher to be your sponsor. 
  7. Students (not parents) need to meet with school counselors. Students should establish a relationship to speak about goals, discuss scheduling questions, or ask advice about colleges or scholarships.
  8. Ask for letters early in the spring of junior year. Providing ample time for teachers, counselors, administrators, coaches, and others to write letters is an important courtesy. No one is paid extra to write letters and often they are doing so on their own time. Providing your resume is an additional courtesy when requesting letters. Some teachers and counselors receive many requests, so be sure to ask early and thank them for their time!

Additional Types of Recommenders:

While it is important not to overwhelm admissions offices with an overabundance of letters, some will allow and even encourage “other recommenders,” in addition to the two to three standard letters. 

For example, Dartmouth requires a counselor recommendation, two teacher recommendations, and strongly encourages an additional peer recommendation.

What is a peer recommendation? It is a written statement of support for the applicant’s candidacy completed by anyone the applicant considers a peer. A few examples are a classmate or teammate; a family member (NOT your parents); a co-worker; lab or debate partner. The peer recommendation is located within the “Other Recommendation” section of the Common Application. (https://admissions.dartmouth.edu/glossary-term/peer-recommendation)

Students may want to consider requesting one additional recommendation from the list below:

  1. Athletic Coach: Many students spend 20-30 hours a week in an athletic activity. This recommendation can speak to a student’s leadership, resilience, and ability to work with a team. It can be particularly important for athletes looking to be recruited.
  2. Art or Theatre Teacher: Students can highlight their creative and problem-solving ability. This type of recommendation is valuable even if a student is not planning to study in the arts. It can highlight the way a student spends his or her time outside of the classroom, developing skills that can be applied universally.
  3. Employer, Mentor, or Internship Supervisor: This letter can highlight a student’s dependability, commitment, and leadership, as well as skills learned on the job.
  4. Volunteer Coordinator or Community Leader (including religious organizations): Again, it is important that the recommender knows the student well and that the student has committed significant time to the organization.
  5. Peer Recommender: Choose someone who will be somewhat impartial (mom and dad are not good choices!). Select a classmate or teammate; brother, sister, or cousin; co-worker, lab or debate partner.

Remember that students who think strategically, act early, and secure strong recommendations can gain an advantage and help their college applications stand out.

Christina Assal, M.A., Certified College Planner

Natalia XThink Strategically About Your Letters of Recommendation and Your Potential Letter Writers