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5 Tips for Getting Great College Recommendation Letters

Updated: Jun 10

getting college recommendation letters

Current high school juniors will begin to write their college applications during this upcoming summer. Current seniors may be looking for that extra recommendation letter to boost the applications they’ve already submitted. A good recommendation letter goes a long way toward success, while the absence of enthusiastic support from your teachers and counselor is noticed by experienced admissions officers and can lead to rejection.

Here are 5 tips to help you get the most effective letters of recommendation.

Set Yourself Up for Success!

It takes planning to form the kinds of connections that will be the basis for high-quality recommendations.  Beginning at the start of junior year:

  • Get to know your teachers and guidance counselor.

  • Take an active interest; ask questions.

  • Help build a sense of community with your classmates, teachers, and school administrators by interacting with them as much as possible.

  • And finally, keep records of your accomplishments--and efforts--in school, so you can later help your teachers and counselor write recommendations that are specific and personal.

Ask Recent Teachers

College applications typically involve three letters of recommendation: One is automatically written by your school counselor, and two others are written by teachers of your choice. You should ask one teacher from STEM and one from the humanities—English or history, for example—to write your letters of recommendation.

Ask recent teachers, preferably those who taught you during junior year. Take time to make your request personal, even if it is made by email. Tell each teacher why you appreciated their class, and politely request their recommendation.

Provide Background

Help your teachers recall details about your performance in their classes. Some high schools provide questionnaires for students to complete for teacher recommenders. A questionnaire may pose helpful questions like, “Which colleges are you applying to?” and “What did you learn in the class?” The answers to these questions are the type of information that should be included in any request for a teacher recommendation.

Do not provide a complete activity résumé to your teacher recommenders; your teachers should write about you as a student in the classroom, not about your performance in clubs or other activities. Instead, provide information to your teachers that will help them tell your academic and intellectual story.

Write a Narrative for Your Counselor

On the other hand, for your school counselor provide a complete list of your activities in school and the community. Your counselor is expected to write about you as a whole.

You can also help your counselor write your recommendation by sharing a story about yourself.  This can be written by you or a parent. Most schools ask parents and students to complete a questionnaire at the start of the college application process, which among other things, asks about your strengths. A story attached to the questionnaire that creates a picture of how you have expressed these qualities through participation in clubs, sports, or community service will help your counselor write a descriptive, impactful recommendation.

Request a Recommendation Early and Follow Up

When school starts each fall, teachers are inundated with requests for recommendations.  It is better to ask your teachers for this favor near the end of your junior year. That way, your teachers can write about you from recent memory and on their own schedule.

Follow up with your recommenders during the summer or early fall. Ask if more information is needed and add any new information, such as extra colleges you may have added to your list. Later, share the outcomes of your college applications with your recommenders and thank them for their valuable contribution to your success!

The American philosopher and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson famously said, “Our chief want is someone who will inspire us to be what we know we could be.”

Support from credible adults who know you—your teachers and counselor—is one of the most important aspects of your college applications. Take time to help them with the project of writing recommendations. They are doing you a great favor!

At College Choice Counseling®, our counselors and tutors are here to help you with college counseling, college essay help and college application help, test prep and academic tutoring. Reach out … we’ll help you succeed!

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