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  • Writer's pictureAllison Styffe

Letters of Rec: here's what you need to know

Recommendation letters are the only piece of your college applications you won't write yourself, but that doesn't mean they don't require thought or effort on your part. In fact, there's quite a bit to consider when it comes to letters of recommendation, and this week we're here to break it all down for you.

What are letters of recommendation?

Colleges are looking for a well-rounded picture of the students who apply — not just what kinds of grades and test scores you've earned, but what you're like in the classroom, how they can expect you to show up to life on their campus, what you'll contribute to their community. While the essays and extracurriculars add a human element to the numbers on your application, recommendation letters give a glimpse into who you are from another's point of view.

A letter of rec is a chance for teachers, counselors, coaches, bosses, etc. to share what they know about you and why they think you would thrive in college. They might share your best attributes, a story that speaks to your character, or the ways they've seen you grow. No matter what they write, the hope is that it gives the colleges you're looking at one more reason to say "yes" to your application.

It's also important to note that sometimes there's more than just a letter involved. Some colleges will ask your recommenders to complete a questionnaire about you as well. They might be asked about your leadership potential, integrity, or grit. In this regard, it's important that you're asking individuals who know you well to be your recommenders, people who can speak to your qualities holistically. But more on that in a minute!

How important are they?

Not all colleges will require letters of rec, but the ones who do tend to view them with significance. As you can see on the chart below, more than half of colleges report recommendations as a considerably or moderately important element of a student's application. Also, note that this data is from 2019 — think how much has changed in the last year. For example, SAT/ACT scores are now optional at most colleges, meaning admissions counselors are placing more weight on other application elements (like letters of rec!) than they were in prior years. In this way, recommendation letters have become less of a cherry on top and more of an integral ingredient in the application sundae.

Percent of colleges reporting “Considerable” to “Moderate” importance (Source: NACAC 2019)

Who should I ask?

Many schools will require letters of rec from your school counselor and two of your teachers. Some colleges will accept an additional, optional recommendation letter from another adult in your life — maybe your supervisor at work or your youth group leader (in fact, many Christian schools will specifically request a letter from a spiritual mentor in your life). If you're an athlete, they may want to see a letter from your coach, and if you're applying to a music program, you'll want your instrument instructor to be a recommender. The important part here: make sure you have the right number and kind of recommenders as required by each school you apply to. Nothing puts a damper on an application quite like the apparent inability to follow directions.

As far as who you should ask, the answer is almost too simple: choose the teachers who know you best. Whether they've known you the longest, have gotten to know you well more recently, or have come to know you outside of the classroom through extracurricular activities. The better they know you, the more good things they'll have to say. For those of you with lots of potential recommenders, narrow the list down by those who align with your goals or interests. For example, if you intend to study writing, consider approaching one of your language arts teachers with the request, someone who can speak to your writing prowess and passion. Or if you know one of your teachers is an alum of the college you're applying to, their ability to speak knowledgeably about why you'd thrive at their alma matter could be a big hit.

When and how do I make the request?

Soon. That's the first word that comes to mind. The sooner the better, really. A more concrete recommendation: before heading off for summer break. First of all, it's respectful to give the educators in your life time to write the letter, and they're sure to have more of it over the summer. Second, getting a "yes" now, while you're still easily in contact, means you won't have to hunt them down in the fall. So put this on your to-do list within the next few weeks!

When it comes to the how of it all, don't overthink it. When counselors become counselors and teachers become teachers, they are signing up to write a lot of recommendation letters throughout their career. It's simply part of the job. So no need to feel awkward or intimidated. Simply be courteous and straightforward. Lots of please's and thank you's, with clear instructions and deadlines. It should look a little something like this (whether in person or via email):

"Hi _________. I will be applying for college in the fall and would be so grateful if you'd be willing to write a letter of recommendation for me. If so, I will follow up at the beginning of October with information on where and how to send it, but in the meantime wanted to provide you with plenty notice. Thank you!"

So, for now, go forth and request those letters. And while you're at it, check out this blog post to get a glimpse of how you'll use Overgrad to get those letters of rec where they need to go come fall.
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