Letters of Recommendation for College: Who, When, and How to Ask for One

Marie-Antonette Bone / Colleges of Distinction »

When you apply to college, you’ll have quite a checklist of things to prepare for submission: your transcript, SAT/ACT scores, essays, and—one that can be easy to forget—letters of recommendation. It’s already a given that in order to have a successful transcript and SAT/ACT score, you must study hard and stay focused in school, but how do you get a hold of a successful letter of recommendation?

What is a letter of recommendation?

Let’s start with the basics and first take a look at what a letter of recommendation is and why it’s important to your college application process. A letter of recommendation is a document written by a professional, third-party individual that describes the student’s academic and extracurricular successes.

It writes from a perspective outside of grades and test scores by focusing on the student’s personality and values. Colleges utilize these letters to learn more about them beyond their scores and find those who have the potential to succeed holistically in their strong, diverse college communities.

Who should you ask for a letter of recommendation?

Some colleges have specific requirements for whom to choose as your reference. Just to be sure, you can review the exact requirements for your letter of recommendation on the school website or by contacting the admissions office. It is otherwise up to you to find someone who can speak strongly about you.

If you do have the power to choose who your references are, avoid asking your parents, neighbors, or friends. Although they probably know you best, colleges are looking for references who vouch honestly and objectively for your positive academic performance.

It would be difficult for recruiters to view your academics when your letter of recommendation focuses on how nice of a person you are or for babysitting your friend’s cat one weekend.

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Your best choice is to ask teachers or counselors who know you well. They will be able to describe your academics and personal strengths accurately and from a professional perspective.

I would also recommend choosing teachers who taught you within the latter half of your high school career; people constantly change and grow, so those who have worked with you most recently will better understand your personality and academic strengths.

When I applied to college, I decided to reach out to my junior-year English teacher, because I was confident that she understood how hard I worked in school. I’d had a good relationship with her and knew that she could write about my achievements with enthusiasm.

When is the best time to ask?

Don’t wait until the last minute to ask someone to write your letter of recommendation. It’s important to give your references enough time to sit down and write a strong, thought-out description of you.

Look at the big picture and think realistically about your timeline: if you are planning on applying for early decision, for example, you would want gauge whom to ask by the end of your junior year. Try to be considerate of your references—you don’t want to pressure them to write your letter of recommendation in a rush.

If you aren’t able to ask that far in advance, try to give them at least one month before your deadline. But be wary; some teachers may choose only to write a certain amount of letters each year. If this is the case, you should try to ask them before they’ve reached their limit.

How to achieve an Optimal Letter of Recommendation?

It is all about quality, not quantity. If you have a handful of letters of recommendations that do not really showcase who you are, you won’t benefit from it. Instead, you should try to get 2-3 letters with context that can highlight your best traits as a student and person as a whole.

To help your letter, I recommend providing your references with a guideline of what you’d like them to focus on. Remember, they have a lot of other students, so it’s good to remind them of your own accomplishments.

Give them this information in writing (paper, email, or any other form of text) so that they have the information accessible at all times. Here are a few areas that you can mention in your guideline:

  • Academic achievements
  • Academic history
  • Plans for the future
  • Your participation in that teacher’s class
  • Projects that showcase your skills
  • Academic challenges you have overcome
  • Hobbies
  • Why you’re applying to that specific college

This information can help you stand out and allow your references to give specific examples of your success so that each letter of recommendation is a great one.

Your GPA and SAT/ACT scores tell college admissions how well you do in school, but your letter of recommendation shows the journey of how you got to where you are.

Sending Your Letter of Recommendation to a College

To ensure honesty, most colleges require students’ references to submit their letters of recommendation directly, often providing a portal for references to make electronic submissions. The colleges I applied to, for instance, had a system that let me track my application status.

Though I couldn’t read the letters themselves, I was able to submit requests to my references’ emails and see when they submitted their letters.

Letters of recommendation have a huge impact on your college application. Think hard about who can showcase your talents and best qualities, and impress admissions offices with the effect you had on others!

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