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Mini-Guide: Letters of Recommendation

Updated: Nov 10, 2020

"Letters of recommendation can seem especially overwhelming because you don’t have control over them. This is the part of your application that you can’t personally make look as good as possible, so you have to choose people that you think will represent you in the best way possible" - Elise Frisby, College Student

You may have already begun the hard work of your application and personal statement, but don't skip out on this very important part of your college application. As you begin your school year, you have a lot on your plate. College apps are on your mind, but so are a lot of other things! Where and how do you begin? Check out our answer to a few of the most common questions below.

1. Who needs a letter of recommendation?

Letters of recommendation are part of a well-rounded college application. All the hours you've spent on your essays, application, and college selections are important to show what you have accomplished, but colleges want to learn you from as many different angles as possible. Letters of rec are a great way to make sure that happens. Some important things about the reasons behind letters of recommendation:

1. Letters of recommendation show you are able to create relationships with mentors and teachers.

2. These letters are an opportunity for you to showcase, from an entirely different perspective, why you are unique!

3. Letters of recommendation should reveal things about you that grades and test scores can’t. They provide personal opinions of your character, and show who is willing to speak on your behalf.

2. How do I choose the right teachers?

Find the teachers who know you best. Even if you didn't "ace" that class, a teacher who knows your strengths and weaknesses will write a letter that benefits your application the most. Letters from a teacher who has worked with you through more than just your best moments will show your unique qualities, which is what application readers want to see.

In fact: that class you didn't get an "A" in? Those teachers will have learned what makes you unique both as a person and a student. Those classes in which you struggled help develop very important skills that colleges will want to know about. For example, seeking help during office hours and putting in significant work to bring up a grade in a class will show your work ethic and your ability to overcome challenges.

3. What if I have to have more than one letter of recommendation?

In the event that you are able to choose more than one teacher, it’s a good idea to choose a teacher who teaches a subject that is in the same vein as your field of interest as well as someone from a completely different area of study. For example, if you are interested in becoming a journalist, you should consider asking one of your English teachers. However, a teacher from a different area of study, such as a psychology teacher or a science teacher, will showcase your well-rounded education.

Asking teachers who know you in various ways is another opportunity to show your different sides and interests. You should always ask teachers who taught you during junior year - often, these teachers taught you the most challenging classes, and they also provide a current picture of you for colleges.

In addition, having a range of letters to choose from in the event that you can only submit one can come in handy.

4. Can I choose someone who isn't a teacher?

Some schools also accept non-teacher recommendations, and many schools allow an optional non-teacher recommendation. If the university you’re applying to accepts it, try to get a good non-teacher letter of recommendation - this is an opportunity to show the university another aspect of yourself, outside of the academic world. Choose someone who has a prominent role in your life - a pastor, a tutor, an employer, a coach, someone you interned with, or maybe even a family friend who can really capture your character, and has a relationship with the university you’re applying to. Someone who can represent you, attest to your character, and has seen you struggle outside the classroom. It’s a chance for you to give the university a closer glimpse of your extracurricular life, and a clearer idea of the person you are outside the classroom.

5. After I've chosen the right teacher, what do I do?

1. Ask them politely if they are open to writing a letter for you. If you don't see the teacher frequently, feel free to send them an email as well! But check your spelling.

2. Make sure you tell them the deadlines, dates and requirements of your letters of recommendation.

3. Try to avoid asking them during the summer, since it's an important time for teachers to recharge, too.

4. If your school uses Naviance for letters of recommendation, then ask your teacher in person before you send the request through Naviance. Essentially, they are doing you a favor, so ask very politely, and make it as easy for them as possible.

5. Of course, it is very important to read the requirements on your applications carefully. Some schools request letters from two teachers and a counselor, while others only ask for one teacher.

"Although you’re exhausted from late nights doing homework, hours of college applications and extracurriculars, you have to access the kindest, most polite part of yourself. Writing letters of recommendation is a lot of work for teachers, and they aren’t paid for it - they’re doing it as a favor for you." - Amanda Merrifield, StL College Counselor


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