We often say that there are very few things under your control in the admissions process: your grades, your activities, your essays and applications, your test scores, and—believe it or not—your recommendation letters.
With thoughtful planning and some information about the basics, you can make sure you are rec-letter-ready when application season rolls around.
WHAT are recommendation letters?
Recommendation letters are used by admissions officers to get third-party insights into students from their educators.
Students and their parents are NOT allowed to read the recommendation letters. In fact, waiving FERPA access—forfeiting the right to read the letters—is required to submit college applications.
WHO is writing recommendation letters?
For most colleges, students will have recommendation letters from their guidance counselor and TWO core academic subject teachers.
The guidance counselor is required to write recommendation letters for all of their students. If your student has not already begun to foster a relationship and dialogue with their counselor, then they should do so sooner than later.
Guidance counselors have to write so many recommendation letters; if they truly know the student and can speak to specific insights, it will show in the letter. This requires knowing the student’s personal and academic journey through high school.
For the teachers, core academic subjects mean English, history, science, math, and foreign language. Economics, or Psychology do not really qualify, even at AP level, unless one of those subjects is a clearly intended major.
Furthermore, admissions officers generally prefer that both teachers come from junior year. This, however, is not a set-in-stone rule. If a student had a tenth-grade teacher who absolutely loved them and will write an incredible letter, then choose that teacher over a junior year teacher whose letter will not read as passionately.
Or, if a student had a teacher in tenth grade and then is set to have them again in twelfth grade, or if a ninth-grade teacher doubles as a coach or club advisor where a student has a prominent leadership role, then these teachers may be worthy of consideration.
As you can see, picking your teacher recommenders is as much an art as it is a science. General uncompromising rules, though, are…
1. Have at least ONE junior year teacher.
WHEN should I be asking teachers to write recommendation letters?
Students should start reaching out to teachers as early as the winter of junior year. Better earlier than later; many teachers will cap how many recommendation letters they will write, and they will prioritize students who ask earlier.
Ideally, teachers will write their recommendation letters over the summer so that the recommendation letters are ready to go by the time a student is submitting their applications in the late summer or early fall.
WHERE do students submit recommendation letters?
The Common App makes submitting recommendation letters as straightforward as possible. Your student will “assign” their recommenders in the Common App – that is, once they have talked to their recommenders, they will invite their teachers and counselor to submit a letter via the Common App itself.
For the Coalition and other colleges that have their own applications, the process is similar. The Coalition stores all your documents, including recommendation letters, in a file the Coalition calls the student’s “locker.” You can invite recommendation writers to submit their letters to your student’s locker much as you would on the Common App.
The Coalition’s guide to inviting recommenders can be found here.
WHY are recommendation letters important?
Recommendation letters provide invaluable insights into who a student is both inside and outside of the classroom. At minimum, a recommendation letter can validate work ethic and give context to a student’s grades and academic accomplishments.
At maximum, it can say what a student should not—or really cannot—in their essay.
For example, if a student has overcome a medical diagnosis or personal adversities, even if they addressed this in an essay or the Additional Information section, it may be valuable for a third-party adult like a guidance counselor to offer other context and commentary.
As another example, let’s say a student is a real leader in the classroom or is someone who takes initiative on assignments and in group projects—or is just a genuinely kind person. Realistically, a student cannot write an essay about any of these things because it would sound awkward and vain, but those same words from a teacher’s perspective could prove a tremendous asset.