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College Recommendation Letters: Where to Start

Counselor and teacher recommendation letters are a big part of students’ college applications. According to NACAC, 87% of colleges assign some level of importance to teacher and counselor recommendations. Most colleges require recommendations letters for admission, so they’re critical to submitting a comprehensive and complete college application. However, many students wait until the last minute to gather this essential piece of the college application puzzle.

Approaching a counselor or teacher and asking them to write a recommendation can be an intimidating task, and many students will put it off – making the process even more difficult for both the student and the recommender. Just like with any other college application element, it’s important to start planning early and get a head start to make the process of gathering recommendation letters quick and easy.

Make a List of Potential Teachers

Although they will not ask for recommendations until senior year, in most cases, students should start to think about which teacher or teachers they would like a recommendation from as early as junior year. By then, students may have had teachers more than once, or had time to build relationships with teachers in courses that align with their academic goals in college.

For some it can be an easy choice. If you’re a STEM student and your science teacher from the past two years is also the coach on the robotics team, chances are you’ve had ample time to get to know him or her, and for him or her to get to know you. This would be a good place to start, as that teacher can provide additional context on your interest in STEM, your robotics activity, and more.

The goal is to select teachers who know you as a student and your potential in college. Getting a recommendation from a teacher who teaches a subject related to your intended major is ideal, but might not always be the best choice in some cases. For example, a student interested in humanities might get the best recommendation from the math teacher that they have had over all four years of high school.

Take time to think about the teachers who know you best and will be able to provide the most context to your overall college application.

Reach Out Early

Most colleges will require a recommendation letter from your college counselor, so that means the college counselors at your school will be writing letters for every student on their roster who is applying to college. As you can imagine, this is a lot of work on the part of the counselor. While this aspect may seem one of the easier parts of the application process – asking your college counselor for a recommendation – it’s important to be strategic and plan ahead by getting to know your counselor, meeting with him or her early and often, and building a relationship so that he or she can write a comprehensive and informed recommendation when needed.

Once school is in session, make time with your college counselor to go over your college list, your college application strategy, and to ask for his or her recommendation. By starting early, you’re giving your counselor plenty of time to write a thorough and thoughtful recommendation.

The same applies to your teachers. Once you decide which teachers you want to ask you should approach them as soon as possible. Chances are a lot of your classmates will be asking the same instructors for recommendations, so be sure to give them plenty of advance notice so they’re not rushed – and you’re not scrambling to get your application done at the last minute.

Provide Context

When approaching teachers and counselors for recommendation letters it’s often helpful to provide them with some additional context, like a resume, that they can reference when writing the recommendation. This can also serve as a refresher for any accomplishments that they’d want to mention, but perhaps forgot about or wanted more details to provide. Make sure to ask your counselor and teachers if there’s anything else they’d like to see – like a project or other material – which they could use for your recommendation. Provide any materials they request on time and complete – to save you both time.

Say Thank You

After a teacher or counselor has agreed to write a recommendation letter, be sure to show your appreciation. Writing recommendation letters is a long and tedious process that they will have to complete for dozens – if not hundreds – of students. Let them know you appreciate them taking the time to write a recommendation for you. After all of your applications are done and submitted, send them one more thank you note. Because without them you wouldn’t be where you are now!

Additional Recommendation Letter Resources

Here are some additional resources to help students who want to learn more about college recommendation letters.

At IvyWise we work with students to help them identify and focus their interests, and mentor them to build strong relationships inside and outside of the classroom that will help them succeed during – and after – the college admissions process. For more information on how our team of expert counselors can help your student build teacher relationships, explore their interests, and, in the end, put together outstanding college applications, contact us today.


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