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When and How to Get Letters of Recommendation

Letters of recommendation (LORs) are a crucial part of the college application process. They provide personal accounts of your character and accomplishments from people who have interacted with you closely, extensively, and recently in your high school career. They can also give insights into your background or extenuating circumstances otherwise not highlighted in your application. However, students often find it confusing and even anxiety-inducing to ask for these letters. This blog answers key questions about the process of requesting LOR and how to help your recommenders showcase your strengths and potential.

How many LORs do you need?

Although college requirements vary, aim to secure three LORs: one from your counselor and two from your high school teachers. The two academic letters from your teachers will focus on your classroom performance as a student, while your counselor will write more holistically about you and aspects of your academic, personal, social, and extracurricular presence in relation to your graduating class.

Who should you ask for a LOR?

It is important to remember that the purpose of a LOR is to recommend you to colleges, not to provide a thorough assessment of your performance. Therefore, you should ask for a LOR from teachers who have nice things to say about you. Think about all of your teachers, then ask yourself: who do I believe knows me best and can attest to my academic prowess, leadership, work ethic, and intellectual vitality? Ask those who come to mind for a letter. They will be able to show colleges what you will contribute to their communities.

You are strongly recommended to ask teachers from core academic areas, preferably one from a humanities teacher, and one from a STEM teacher from the 11th and 12th grade (junior and senior years). Consider your intended major as well. If you are planning to study Chemistry, it would be a good idea to have a letter from your Chemistry teacher.

Some schools may allow you to submit an optional, non-academic LOR. Do not feel pressured to submit an extra LOR unless you strongly believe it adds value to your application. You should consider this optional opportunity if there is someone who can speak to your qualities from a different perspective, such as your athletic coach, a leader at the organization you volunteer for, or your supervisor during an internship. Avoid asking your family to write you a letter.

When and how should you ask for a LOR?

Ask early! We cannot stress this enough. The general rule of thumb is to give teachers at least 4 weeks to write your letter. However, popular teachers may get a lot of LOR requests, so the earlier you can ask, the better. A rushed LOR will not be as specific or thoughtful. If you know for sure you will want a letter from a particular teacher, you can even ask them at the end of your junior year and remind them in the fall.

Teachers write many letters each year, resulting in many hours of extra work. When you do ask for a letter, honor that time commitment by speaking to them in person, privately, and respectfully. You can say something to the effect of, “Ms. Smith, I really enjoyed your class last year, and I believe you really know me as a student and a person. I’m applying to colleges this year. Would you be willing to write a letter of recommendation on my behalf?”

Don’t forget to say “thank you” regardless of whether they agree or not.

If there is an extenuating circumstance that prevents you from speaking to your teacher directly, you can reach out via email. However, make sure to budget in extra time for them to respond.

Note: Once put in your recommenders’ email addresses, either directly to Common App/ Coalition App, or via third-party services used by your school, your recommenders will get an automated email notification. Never have a teacher find out they are one of your recommenders through this notification. They most likely will refuse to write you a LOR.

What should you do once a teacher agrees to write your LOR?

Many teachers have a form that you can fill out to provide them with the information they will need when writing your letter. If your teacher has one, make sure to fill it out in a timely manner. Remember, the earlier you get your part done, the earlier they can get to writing.

If your teacher forgets to send you the form or does not have one, follow up via email after they agree to write your letter in person. In your follow-up email, confirm that they have agreed to write a LOR on your behalf, and attach your resume as well as a typed Info Sheet for each teacher. This Info Sheet is meant to jog their memory of your presence in class and should contain the following information:

1. Your full name and pronouns

2. Your intended major (you can say undecided)

3. Your tentative list of colleges

4. Date by which you need the LOR

5. Why you have asked this teacher to write your LOR

6. What class(es) you had with them, and what your favorite parts about the class were

7. Discussion of a piece of work you created for the class that you were proud of

8. A specific moment in class where you feel this teacher saw something in you or helped you to realize/understand something

9. A specific example of how you were able to demonstrate your top qualities in class

10. Any anecdotes that illustrate your points

For example, if the teacher regularly thanked you for being a team player, you can recall a time where you went the extra mile to include some timid classmates during class discussions.

Often, the anecdotes and examples you provide in this Info Sheet end up being highlighted in your LORs. Therefore, be selective of what you want to emphasize. Choose examples that are consistent with the rest of your application. For instance, if you want to foreground your creativity and innovation, you may discuss how you always sought to find and volunteer outside-the-box ideas in class. The more the LORs are consistent with the overall focus of the application, the more effective they will be for admissions officers.

Note: each teacher should receive a tailored Info Sheet specific to their class.

The Final Stretch

Once you’ve sent in all your information, trust your teachers to write you the best possible LORs. That said, you should give them a reminder, either in person or via email, two weeks before the deadline if they have not submitted the letter by then. Give more reminders as needed.

Lastly, make sure to send thank-you notes to your recommenders: one when they agree to write your letter, and another one when you decide on which college to attend. It is crucial to show your gratitude toward those who help you reach your goals.

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