The Complete Guide To Your Letter of Recommendation For College

In order to complete most of your college applications, you’ll need a bare minimum of one raving college recommendation letters. Unfortunately, these aren’t documents you can just throw together either, they take months of preparation.

Now, you must have a ton of questions floating around your brain.

“Why do I need a college recommendation letter?”

“Who do I ask for a personal letter of recommendation?”

“Why is applying to college SO complicated?”

Let's crack into these questions and see what we can answer.  

Why Do I Need a College Letter of Recommendation For College?

College recommendation letters provide a valuable opportunity to bring your application to life. They help admissions officers understand what kind of student you will be at their campus, particularly if you’re providing a letter from a teacher (which we strongly recommend).

For example, let’s say you have won several writing competitions - a strong recommendation letter for college from the school librarian could share how you were the most frequent user of the library and would always have in-depth discussions about a book’s themes or ideas with him/her. This anecdote would establish you as more than a literary talent – in the eyes of admissions committees, you become a voracious reader and sociable person.

Or, perhaps you are a standout athlete - A recommendation letter from your coach could share how you consistently encouraged teammates or how you often stayed after practice to help clean up the change rooms. 

These examples show that you are not only a talented student, but also a hard-worker, leader and a humble person. Traits such as these are near impossible to communicate through a list of achievements or on your resume.

The importance of college recommendation letters can not be understated. As always, there is no single, sure-fire way to know what a college is looking for in a rec letter or how many they require.

Colleges can request a number of different recommendation letters, each setting their own policy, so make sure you’re triple checking what’s required.

Typically, colleges want to see at a letter from the school careers counselor and, in most cases, a minimum of one letter from your teachers. 

Choosing your teachers so that they align with your choice of study is always a good idea, but we’ll dive more into this in the next section.

Recommendation Letter For Student: Who Should I Ask? 

There are a number of ways you can approach sourcing your recommendations, but before all else, check whether the colleges you’re applying to have any requirements. 

Once you’ve double-checked the requirement, it’s time to start searching for your subjects.

Having a letter from someone incredibly wealthy, famous, or important can be very influential, but don’t bank on that letter as your golden ticket. 

What matters most to colleges is what your recommender can share with the admissions committee. 

The Dean of Admissions at Harvard said “one of the best letters we ever received” was from the school's custodian. He spoke about how his recommendee was a positive presence who “always made everyone around him better.”

It’s not as much about the person writing the letter as it is about what they can say about you. that being said, you can’t just get your mum to write a letter for you, this won’t fool anyone.

Here is a list of people you can ask for your college recommendation letter:

Junior Year Teachers– these teachers had you in class recently and see you on a daily basis for at least a year. They can write about your work ethic or improvement. It is much more important to have a teacher who knows/understands/likes you write the letter than to have a teacher who necessarily gave you an A.
School Counselors – their job is to help you during the college application process, and through your conversations they will know about your interests and passions, and why you want to attend particular schools.
Supervisors/Coaches/Mentors –  this type of recommender is crucial to your application. They can give evidence of your success or passions beyond the classroom, highlighting your talents as more than just a quality student but a great person too. If you are focusing on medical research, writing, sports or math on your application, find someone who worked closely with you in this activity … obviously 

In the end, choose someone who knows you and can write deeply about who you are. The more personally someone knows you, the better a letter any one of them will be able to write on your behalf.

How to Ask For a College Letter of Recommendation 

Asking for things 101 - It’s always best to ask a recommender in person for a college recommendation letter.  It’s common courtesy, really.

It should go without saying, but after all, they are doing you a favour by taking the time to thoughtfully craft a letter that reflects on you positively.

You’ll probably find that most people are flattered and happy to help you with your college admissions goals, particularly if you have left a good impression on them. 

However, it is also customary for prospective recommenders to politely refuse if they believe they cannot write a strong letter on your behalf. If this is the case, thank them and ask someone else.

Another common courtesy tip is to give your recommenders plenty of time to write your letter. At bare minimum, provide at least a month to write a letter, which usually means no later than November. 

The more time you provide, the more thought can be put into the letter and the better the outcome will be.

If you have found someone who has agreed to write you a letter of recommendation, you should supply them with supplementary materials including:
+ Your Common App essay
+ A list of your answers to the following questions, which will provide recommenders with a point of reference for who you are, how you think, and what matters to you. For example:
1. What personal qualities do you value in yourself?
2. What are one or two experiences that shaped your outlook or sense of identity?
3. What do you consider to be your greatest strengths? Weaknesses?
4. Where do you see yourself in five years?
5. What's a significant challenge you've had to overcome and what did you learn from it?
+ Your resume – however, it is very important that a letter does NOT simply repeat or list your resume. 
+ A letter of recommendation template and a sample letter (one can be found below) – this is particularly useful for people who have not written letters before.

A rough college letter of recommendation template can be as follows:

*Dear Admissions Committee,
+ Describe your position in the school
+ Describe how well you know the applicant
+ Talk about three to five different qualities you see in the applicant
+ Give examples of each quality
+ Try to quantify the strengths of the applicant and compare him or her to the rest of the student body
+ Briefly talk about the students’ potential in his or her desired major/career and contributions to the university.
+ Strongly advocate for the applicant and conclude by telling the reader they can contact you if necessary.
+ Sign off and contact details*

Three Tips for Writing a College Letter of Recommendation 

To sum it all up, here’s a list of three very important points you can share with your recommenders when writing the letter:

+ The beginning and the end are the most important: This counselor/teacher letter will be among thousands of letters the admission officer reads and so it is a good idea to be memorable at the beginning and the end.
+ Make the student sound human: I understand this goes without saying, but many teachers simply list achievements and regurgitate grades, which is not very useful. The recommendation should act as an avenue for the teacher to describe something about the applicant that numbers cannot show.
+ Examples and anecdotes are of the utmost importance: Talking about the general characteristics of the student is good, but giving examples of each description is much better.

College Recommendation Letters: Final Thoughts

Congratulations! You are now an expert in all things related to college recommendation letters. 

You know why you need letter of recommendations for college, who to ask for a letter of recommendation, how to ask and, most importantly, what a perfect sample college recommendation looks like. 

I’m expecting you to go to school tomorrow prepared to interact with your teachers and find common ground with them in hopes of getting a glowing college recommendation letter when the time comes. 

Don’t let me down. 

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