9 Things You Need to Know About College Letters of Recommendation

Today I’m sharing a post on college recommendation letters that was written by Lee Bierer, a friend of mine, who is a nationally syndicated higher-ed journalist and an independent college counselor in Charlotte, NC. It’s such a timely subject for high school seniors that I wanted to share it with you:

Letters of Recommendation Nuts & Bolts

The college application questions have been answered, the college essays written, the tests taken and you’ve even hit the “submit” button for a few colleges. It’s over. Not yet. One of the most important parts of your application isn’t written by you – it’s the letters of recommendation.

Most colleges request or require one or more letters from teachers, coaches and other people that can provide insights into who you are. These letters of recommendation, along with college application essays and extracurricular activities, form the subjective criteria that help set students apart from one another. A strong letter of recommendation can be an important tipping factor when admissions committees are comparing students with similar SAT scores and grades.

Here’s What You Need to Do….

1. Read the Fine Print.

There is no one-size fits all here. Some colleges require one letter from a teacher of a core subject while others will simply suggest sending two letters. Many colleges will provide forms for the recommenders to complete and some can accept recommendations online while others aren’t there yet. If you’re unsure what to do, contact the school.

2. Plan Ahead.

Know your deadlines and make sure to give as much time as possible. Recommended time is two to three weeks prior to the application deadline. Popular teachers fill their quotas early.
Ask, Don’t Assume – It is important to ask teachers and other recommenders two questions:
1. Are they comfortable that they can write a strong letter on your behalf? A lukewarm letter can do real damage.
2. Can they meet your deadline?

3. Be helpful.

Provide your recommenders with a copy of your transcript and an information sheet, also known as a brag sheet that details your extracurricular activities, community service involvement, honors, summer experiences, etc.

4. Simplify the Process. 

Supply teachers and others writing recommendation letters with stamped envelopes addressed to the college admissions offices if they are not submitting  them online.

5. Consider Your Future Major.

If you are thinking about majoring in engineering, it makes more sense to ask a math or science teacher to write the letter than an English teacher.

6. Evaluate Who Can Help You Most.

Receiving an “A” in a class or picking your favorite teacher should not be the determining factors. Very often the class where you may have struggled at first and demonstrated your perseverance is a better choice. That teacher will probably write a stronger letter because they will share their perceptions of your work ethic and your contribution to the class.

7. Follow-up

Get back in touch with the people writing your recommendations a week or so prior to the deadline to ensure that the letters have been mailed.

8. Doublecheck with college. 

Follow-up with colleges to be sure your application folder is complete. Many colleges now offer online Application Status Checks – be sure to write down your User Name and Password for each college you are applying to.

9. Say thank you.

Be sure to send a handwritten thank you note to those who wrote your letters once everything is in and let them know the results of your college applications.

Lynn O’Shaughnessy is the author of Shrinking the Cost of College, a financial workbook that can help you make a college degree more affordable. Here’s where you can buy her money-saving workbook.

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