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College Recommendation Letter Guide for High School Seniors

By Kim, IvyWise College Admissions Counselor and former Admissions Officer at the University of Pennsylvania

Since you likely won’t get to read your recommendation letters, they can be a pretty daunting part of the college application process. How do I know that my teacher or recommender will say something nice about me? How do I know if the letter is helpful? Apart from this, few people understand why the admissions committee even wants to read these letters. What information are admissions officers hoping to find? You can see why this aspect of the application can leave families feeling a little unsure about how to handle letters of recommendation.

It is easy to get overwhelmed by all the different elements of the college admissions process, and one way to ease this stress is to take it one step at a time. Many students and families find it helpful to think of each component of the application individually, making every component more digestible, and it ultimately helps students and families to feel just a little more in control. Let’s break down this part of the application and help you to understand how to approach it!

Why Do Colleges Ask for Recommendation Letters?

They want to learn more about you from the people who interact with you in your educational setting. In your application, the admissions committee is learning the types of grades you received, the classes you took, the leadership positions or time you’ve committed to various activities and causes, and in your essays, they hear from you directly. So what do committees get in letters? They learn how you interact with others. They learn what you do when things don’t work out or go your way, they learn how excited (or bored!) you get when you are learning about specific content or skills. By reading details like this, they can begin to imagine what you might be like in that college’s lecture halls, dorm rooms, sports teams, student activities, or even in professors’ office hours. They have probably read why YOU think you fit in at their college, but now they can use details your educators provide to try to further imagine it. These letters can also be used in other ways, to verify something you’ve listed on your application (if you are really the football captain, your teachers will probably mention it), or if your essay gave off a kind and thoughtful vibe, your teacher letters will likely echo these characteristics. And ultimately, the admissions committee is not just admitting students to their next class, they are admitting potential letters, friends, roommates, and more simply, people. 

Who Should Write Your Letters of Recommendation for College Applications?

Teachers who can speak to who you are as a person beyond just your grades and activities. Students often agonize about who they should ask to write their recommendation letters. I’ve heard students think about this in so many ways: Should I pick an alumnus of that college? Should I get my senator to write me a letter? I want to study sociology but got a 105% in math class – should I ask my math teacher? I always respond to questions like this by asking the student, “well, how well does that person know you?” and I usually get a quizzical look in return. Sure, a letter from an alumnus, a senator, or from a teacher where you earned the top grade could be excellent letters for you, but you need to think deeply about what those people will write about you. When most students intern with their senators, they only get to be with the senator a few hours TOTAL over their internships and if you got the highest grade in the class because it was easy for you and required little interaction with peers or the teacher, that teacher may ONLY be able to share how bright you are with little other personal details included in their letter.

When you think about the teacher recommendation letters, think of them as a way for the committee to further get to know you as a whole person and instead of asking who can speak about you in the most prestigious terms or who you know that is most recognizable to the committee, ask yourself: “Who knows me beyond my grades and resume? Who really knows me as a person?” Asking yourself this question will result in a more thoughtful letter that will be the most helpful to the admissions process.

Some things you could consider as you go through the various educators in your life are: Who has seen me get truly excited about learning? Who has seen me ask for help and/or offer help to others? Which of my teachers do I talk to about something other than just the class content?  Who knows me as a person and can speak to my personality and the unique offering I bring to my future college? This will not necessarily be an easy process and you may find that you don’t feel confident that multiple teachers know you in this deeper way, but depending on where you are in the process, you still have time to make stronger relationships with your teachers!

Do Colleges Require Recommendation Letters from Certain Teachers?

It depends. Some colleges explicitly state which teachers you should ask, so please follow their directions! If a college requires that you ask a teacher in a subject related to your intended major, then you must follow that rule. Similarly, most colleges prefer that your letters come from teachers that had you in 11th or 12th grade, so try to adhere to this as much as possible.

How Can You Get Great Teacher Recommendation Letters?

Even as a senior, you could make an active effort in the fall to get to know your teachers more deeply. Teachers, after all, are people too! Ask them about what brought them to teaching? Do they have kids? What made them so fond of science, history, etc.? Where did your teacher go to college and what was their greatest memory of college? The list goes on and on, but the point here is that if you make an effort to get to know your teachers, authentically, the relationship will go both ways and they will get to know you too! For younger students, take full advantage of the time you have and begin to form true relationships with educators in your life.

Should You Submit Additional Recommendation Letters?

Only if that extra recommendation will add additional context. If the college to which you are applying requires just two recommendations and allows one extra, only submit the extra one if that additional person will say something different from the other two letters. Maybe the third letter is from a coach, club advisor, or from a non-core class (normally the two main letters should come from math, science, social science, English, or language.) Lastly, just because you can submit extra letters, does not mean that you should. Remember that admissions officers have thousands of applications to read so do not submit extra documents unless you feel pretty confident that it adds new information to your application.

Do You Get to Read Your Recommendation Letters?

Usually not. At IvyWise, we highly recommend that you waive FERPA (Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act), which means that once your teachers submit your letters, you won’t be able to request access to them to see what they say. This helps admissions officers trust that the letters are true and not being influenced by students or families, but it also means you have to trust you have thoughtfully chosen the right recommenders.

The application process can feel daunting, especially the parts you don’t have complete control over. But remember, this is just the way that colleges get to know you! Every piece of your college application is one more way to show who you are as a person and student, and if you approach it thoughtfully, you’ll have great results!

At IvyWise, we work with students to help them craft the most compelling and authentic applications, including helping them choose the best teachers to write letters of recommendation. Our counselors are all former admissions officers from top universities, and they know what admissions committees are looking for in recommendation letter. They can help you build those foundational relationships with your educators and help you decide whom to approach for letters of recommendation and how. Contact us today for more information on our college counseling services!


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