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Planning for College: Letters of Recommendation

By Alison Jaenicke
Accepted.com Senior Editor
Article courtesy of Accepted.com, admissions consultancy

 

Long ago, in a public high school far away, I made plans to apply to three universities. Early in my senior year, I asked my creative writing teacher for a letter of recommendation to William and Mary, her alma mater. Her response: "I don't know you well enough to write a good one." Ouch. By spring, when she knew me well and had heard I was waitlisted, she apologetically offered to write a letter. I sullenly rejected her offer and pulled myself off the waitlist.

I made several mistakes: 1) colleges usually prefer letters from core academic teachers-English or math, for instance-and I had no business asking a creative writing teacher unless I had phenomenal talent (I did not) 2) in a public high school with big classes, it takes time for a teacher to know a student well-a junior-year teacher would have been a better choice, and 3) when the teacher offered an extra letter, I should have accepted-such an additional edge might have led to my admission.

A decade after I left for the University of Virginia, I began teaching English to juniors and seniors in a college-prep school. Since then, I've written scores of letters of recommendation and have seen that students today are better informed and coached. Their savvy sets the bar higher for you. Here's how to match the competition:

Whom To Ask

Most schools ask for one to three letters. Examine the forms carefully to see what each school requires, then make a plan.

Teachers Count on asking two junior or senior-year academic teachers who know you well. The Common Application Teacher Evaluation form asks about intellectual promise, enthusiasm, and initiative, as well as such specifics as "written expression of ideas," "effective class discussion" and "disciplined work habits." Think about which teachers might respond most positively and specifically to these questions and who might write the best letter. Ask two teachers from different subject areas who know you in different ways and can address different strengths and dimensions to your personality. If you know what you'll study in college, ask teachers in related subjects (for example, a future engineering student should ask a math or physical science teacher).

Additional References Some schools allow supplemental references from coaches, employers, club advisors, supervisors of your volunteer service, etc. Others schools discourage them. If a school states that a reference is "optional," consider it a requirement and send one. Recommendations from prominent citizens or celebrities who do not know you will not help your case; in fact, admissions officials often resent such artificial letters.

When To Ask

Make a list of dates by which recommendations must be submitted. Are you applying early decision or early action? Then forms might be due as early as November. A month before the first deadline is not too early to ask a teacher; a week is too late. Teachers may limit the number of recs they will write, so if you're among the last to ask, you could be shut out.

How To Ask

Not during a fire drill. Not as a teacher sits at the lunch table among other teachers or students. Find a quiet time when the teacher can talk one-on-one and consider your request thoughtfully. In a perfect world, you would make an appointment to talk with the teacher about your list of schools, your plans for college, and what you see as your accomplishments and strengths. Don't walk in with forms in hand, assuming he will say yes. Ask first.

Once You've Asked

I loved when students gave me a folder with all the forms and envelopes organized inside, lines for names and addresses completed, envelopes addressed and stamped. The best was when a student attached to the outside of the folder a schedule chronologically listing due dates for recommendations. Teachers are busy, with many demands on their time, and with papers continuously flowing into and out of their lives. Anything you can do to help organize these papers makes a good impression and helps ensure your letters are submitted on time. I also loved when students used the Common Application, which meant fewer forms for me to fill out. Finally, it's not pushy to remind the teacher of a deadline a week before it arrives: if the date has slipped his or her mind, you'll both be glad of the reminder.

 

The Common Application Teacher Evaluation Form
The Common Application (http://www.commonapp.org/) is a form used by 230 colleges and universities, either exclusively or with a school-specific supplement. Completing one form for several schools simplifies the application process and eliminates duplication of effort. Using the Common Application Teacher Evaluation form makes life simpler for the recommending teacher. The form points out that "The [participating] colleges and universities encourage the use of this form. No distinction will be made between it and the college's own form." While some counselors feel that students who submit the school's application form rather than the Common Application may appear to show greater interest in the school, they note that there is no disadvantage to a using the Common Application Teacher Evaluation Form.

A few other tips to help ensure a better recommendation:

  • If the form asks whether you will waive your right to read the letter, check that box- if the teacher knows you'll never read the letter, he will write a better and more candid one.
  • Some high school counseling offices ask that seniors prepare a portfolio outlining their activities, achievements, interests, and plans. Even if yours doesn't, you should consider providing such information to your recommenders.
  • Many teachers will know how to write a thorough, positive letter detailing your strengths, but some will not. And if you're asking your coach, employer, or another supplemental reference, he probably could use some guidance. Accepted.com provides "10 Tips for Recommenders" that you can print out and provide.

Once The Letters Are Sent

Thank your recommenders, and let them know where you're admitted and where you'll attend.

Do Teachers Mind Writing Recs?

Some students worry about troubling teachers with requests: don't. Teachers teach because they want to nurture young minds and support their students. Although they may grumble at times, most teachers view writing recommendations as part of their jobs. When I left teaching, I knew that some of my juniors would want me to write recommendations the following year, so I gave them my contact information and encouraged them to call. Many students would be surprised to know that sitting down the following winter to reflect on their achievements and growth pleased me, that piecing together sparkling images of their best moments in the classroom helped me to appreciate where we had been together and where my students were headed.

Copyright Accepted.com 2003