There are quite a few components involved when it comes to getting admitted to college, like filling out applications, sending transcripts and test scores, applying for financial aid, and crafting essays. Among all the other steps in the process to getting admitted to college is letters of recommendation. Many colleges require prospective students to get and submit letters of recommendation before any admission decisions are made. If you’re just entering the college realm, or getting back into the college realm, you may be wondering about some important things: what are letters of recommendation? Why are they so important? How do you go about getting one? Since letters of recommendation really are important when it comes to getting admitted to college, we’ve got a complete guide to everything you need to know about them - and how to make sure you get a stellar one.
What is a Letter of Recommendation?
Letters of recommendation are a common component of a lot of college admissions processes. Where college applications showcase your grades, academic accomplishments, and test scores, letters of recommendation are a part of college admissions that give your application personality and showcase who you are apart from grades and scores. Typically, letters of recommendation are written by someone who knows you well and that can showcase your personality, your accomplishments, and other aspects of you in order to give colleges a better sense of you.
Why are Letters of Recommendation Important?
Like we mentioned before, letters of recommendation really personalize your application to a college and show insight to your character. Colleges are often interested in admitting students who add value, diversity and good characteristics to the college community, but it can be hard for college admissions offices to find the time to interview each prospective student to see what they’re like. Letters of recommendation can help colleges learn more about students than just their test scores and grades without having to interview them in person. When it comes to letters of recommendation, Bobbie Jean S. Huerth, Assistant Director of Application Evaluation and Training at University of Wisconsin-Madison, says "We get much more of a real feeling for the student and the type of person they are and the type of student they are. That helps us picture who they might be on our campus.”
At the end of the day, letters of recommendation are a common required portion of many college applications - and that alone makes them important. If getting into college is a goal of yours, and a letter of recommendation is required on the application, you’ll need one!
Who to Ask for a Letter of Recommendation
Colleges look for letters of recommendation from reputable or credible people that know you, and unfortunately that means you can’t write a letter of recommendation for yourself. Typically, family members and spouses are also not allowed to be sources for letters of recommendation either. So, who should you ask for a letter of recommendation? There are a few things you should consider before answering this question.
Sometimes, colleges ask for letters of recommendation from specific sources. For example, Pomona College in California requires applying students to submit two letters of recommendation from teachers in the subjects of math, foreign languages, english, or science. In this case, you would of course ask a teacher from two of those subjects to write a letter of recommendation on your behalf.
Not all colleges are as specific as Pomona College, though. Some colleges may ask that letters of recommendation come from academic sources, and some colleges may only ask that letters of recommendation not come from family members or spouses. In that case, then - who should you ask to write a letter of recommendation for you?
There are a few important sources you should consider first:
- Teachers you had a good relationship with
- Teachers you had a good relationship with are great sources for letters of recommendation. They often have a good gauge of your character, as well as your academic performance and accomplishments. Not only that, but they’re credible, believable sources, and some teachers may already have established relationships with some college admissions counselors.
- If you’re considering asking a teacher for a letter of recommendation, make sure it’s someone who recently taught you; a teacher you had more than one or two years is probably too long ago.
- Counselors or Advisors
- Counselors and advisors are another great source for letters of recommendation. They’re credible sources, and often know you and your accomplishments. Additionally, a lot of counselors and advisors have established relationships with college admissions advisors.
Other sources to consider asking for a letter of recommendation:
- An employer or supervisor
- A coach
- A colleague
- A family friend
- Someone who knows you well and would be willing to write a letter of recommendation on your behalf
How to Ask Someone to Write a Letter of Recommendation for You
Have a good idea of who you’d like to ask to write a letter of recommendation for you? Great! Now it comes down to how to ask them. Asking for letters of recommendation is typically pretty straightforward, and while you may have a few different modes of communication you’re thinking of, here are some of the common ways people ask for letters of recommendation:
- An in-person meeting
- Via email
- Over the phone
- Through a paper letter
Many people consider in-person meetings to be the best way to ask for a letter of recommendation, but at the end of the day, how you ask is up to you and what you think is best!
What to Say When Asking for a Letter of Recommendation
It may be nerve-wracking or scary to ask for a letter of recommendation, especially if you’re planning on asking someone like a teacher, employer or advisor. Don’t fret, though: those who already work in the academic world typically expect to write letters of recommendation and are happy to do so, and other people are often flattered when asked to write a letter of recommendation. According to PrepScholar, a good prompt for asking for a letter of recommendation in person, on the phone or via email is:
“I really enjoyed your [class]. I've learned a lot from you and feel like you've gotten to know me well. I'm applying to College [X] and would be really flattered if you could write me a strong letter of recommendation for my application(s)."
You can of course tweak your prompt as you see fit, but try to keep it concise, to the point, and firm. If for some reason whoever you ask declines, don’t get discouraged: a weak or not very good letter of recommendation will hurt you rather than help you. It’s best to get a letter of recommendation from someone who is enthusiastic about writing one for you!
When to Ask for a Letter of Recommendation
As you probably already know, college applications have deadlines, and so do letters of recommendations that go along with them. When trying to figure out when to ask for a letter of recommendation, first be aware of when they are due. You should ask for letters of recommendation well before submission deadlines, but at least one month before the deadline. Remember - the earlier the better!
If you’re still in high school, a good time to ask teachers and counselors for letters of recommendation is said to be late spring or early summer of your junior year. That way, teachers have often had enough time to get to know you well throughout high school, and you still have enough time to submit your letter(s) when it comes time to apply to college around senior year.
Information to Provide to the Person Writing Your Letter of Recommendation
Although you’re most likely asking someone who knows you well to write a letter of recommendation for you, there’s still some information you should provide to them either when asking them to write the letter, or shortly after they’ve accepted. You want to make it easy for the person to write your letter of recommendation, and giving them information about you and your accomplishments will not only make it easier on them - but it will increase the chances that they write a good or great quality letter for you. So, what information should you provide to the person writing your letter of recommendation? Here are some examples:
- When the deadline is, or when you need your letter submitted by
- The school you’re applying to
- Some information about your academic history
- Your plans for the future - in academics, career, or in general
- Why you’re interested in the college you’re applying to
- Any accomplishments or work you’re specifically proud of
- Specific challenges you’ve overcome
Last, but Not Least
When all is said and done, there are still some more things you’ll need to take care of with your letter of recommendation. First - you need to submit it! Make sure you know how to submit your letter of recommendation. Sometimes, colleges give those who are writing letters of recommendation instructions on how to submit the letter on your behalf. This may be through a link or an email. Either way, if that is the case, make sure the person writing your letter knows how to submit it for you!
Additionally, you may want to follow up with the person you’ve asked to write your letter of recommendation. Don’t be overbearing, but maybe reach out as it gets closer to the deadline to see how things are going, if they need any additional information from you, and make sure (again) that your person is aware of the submission deadline.
Lastly - SAY THANK YOU! Be sure to thank the person who wrote your letter of recommendation for their time and effort.
Get Ready for a Stellar Letter of Recommendation
By now you should know the important info about letters of recommendation, like what they are, why they’re so important, who to ask, how to ask, when to ask, and so on. Hopefully you’re feeling confident about getting a letter of recommendation.
Take these tips and get ready to get a stellar letter of recommendation!