Who Should Write Your Letters of Recommendation?


Who Should Write Your Letters of Recommendation?

Letters of recommendation become an afterthought for a lot of students who focus so much on actually writing their college application. Some students believe that all it takes to get a great letter of recommendation is the initial ask for a letter. They often simply hope their recommender will turn it in on time and leave the rest to luck. But this laissez-faire attitude carries A LOT of risk and ignores the crucial, strategic question: WHO should write about you?

Treat the letters of recommendation process (because it is an extensive process, not a one-time thing) with as much attention and care as you do the rest of your application materials. Consider the following tips before deciding whom to ask to write your letters of recommendation.

Pick someone for your letters of recommendation who actually knows you well

A lot of what makes asking for letters of recommendation scary is related to questions like: What if they say no? Do they even know me well-enough to write a good letter? Save yourself some of that anxiety by making a conscious effort to get to know your teachers and counselors starting early in 11th grade! This gives you time to build a relationship organically over the course of the year. After all, your junior year teachers will be the ones who know you best at the time applications are due at the beginning of 12th grade.

There are many ways to develop better relationships, from speaking with your teachers after class about the subject they teach, to making an appointment early with your school counselor to introduce yourself and converse about your future academic plans, to asking your teacher to sponsor a club you founded, you get the idea.

By the time spring semester junior year comes around, you should feel more comfortable and be ready to “pre-ask” them to write your letters of recommendation in the fall.

Pick someone whose background is relevant to your goals for your letters of recommendation

For most schools, you’ll need at least two letters of recommendation and in general, main LORs should be written by academic teachers and school counselors. Some schools, such as MIT, ask for one letter to be specifically from a math/science teacher and the other from a humanities, social science or language teacher. In this case, your tennis coach would not fulfill either requirement (though he could write an additional letter on top of the required letters of recommendation if the school accepts additional materials). Other schools, notably Davidson and Dartmouth, include a peer letter of recommendation. Asking your principal to fill this one out would not be appropriate.

Second, consider relevance. In the Davidson example, if you have the option to choose between two close friends, where one of them is a current student at Davidson, then choose the current student at Davidson. They can relate your personality and interests to things specifically relevant to the Davidson campus. A current or past student, or professor who knows you well can lend a sense of legitimacy by expressing why you would be a good fit for this specific campus. Similarly, consider asking for a letter of recommendation from a teacher who has experience in your intended field of study. They will be able to offer anecdotes and evidence showing why you will be successful.

Pick a collaborative recommender

Even if you have a good relationship with a recommender and they agree to write a letter of recommendation for you, you should not assume the rest of the process is out of your hands. Early in 12th grade, you should meet with your recommender for an informal interview and prepare a packet that includes your resume, personal statement, school list, transcripts, a graded assignment from their class, and pre-addressed envelopes if the letter goes by mail. Have a candid conversation about the personal attributes you’d hope they highlight, topics you’d like them to discuss, or even potential concerns they could address (e.g. a dip in grades in 9th grade when you got mono). Ask them how they would like to be reminded of deadlines.

Taking these steps early in the school year will build a collaboration. And extra time adds the benefit of identifying potentially bad recommenders: those too busy to write a letter for you, or those you might suspect might not write a wholly positive letter.

All of this work ensures that you can ultimately submit a letter of recommendation that is not only enthusiastic, positive, and specific, but also provides new information about you. Finding the right person for the job should start early, at the same time you start considering applying to college! Start vetting potential recommendation writers today.

For more information about letters of recommendation and their importance, check out this podcast episode with Amelie Lasker, a Graduate Coach from Columbia:



Growing up splitting my time between Mexico and the United States, I’ve had first-hand experience and personal stake in the unique circumstances that a multi-cultural upbringing brings into the college admissions process and higher education in general. My sustained interest in the matter led me to volunteer as mentor to primarily underrepresented students throughout my high school and university experience.
While at Rice University, I pursued my interests in the sciences and fine arts, both academically and outside the classroom. In addition to serving as the director of a student-founded and student-run art gallery, I undergone training to become an Emergency Medical Technician my freshman year. After graduation, I decided to go international in my efforts to help students get into their dream school and moved to China full-time.

In my free time, I love walking around the city to my inner soundtrack of You Make My Dreams by Hall & Oates, looking for hidden street art, and pretending those dogs at the pet store by my apartment will one day roam free on my made-up ranch in the south of France.

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