The Dos & Don’ts of College Recommendation Letters

When you send in your final application, it’s easy for a school to see what grades you earned, how many honors, AP, or IB classes you’ve been in, and how well you did on the SAT or ACT. It’s way harder for them to get a sense of what type of person you are beyond basic numbers. That’s where the recommendation comes in! The point of a recommendation letter is to give you a boost by showing a more personal side of you when applying to schools, scholarships, or internships. For this reason, it’s important to pick someone who can add something unique to your file, or give the reviewer a different perspective on you as a potential student or candidate. HC has you covered, with some of the basic dos and don’ts of selecting recommendation writers.

DO ask early.

You’ll want to secure recommenders fairly early on in the application process to make sure you actually get the letter (or letters) you need. It’s usually good to start at least four to six weeks out from the final deadline, if not sooner.

Unfortunately, this could narrow down your field of potential writers a bit. Your awesome senior year English teacher? She might be able to write a good letter, but she probably doesn’t know you as well as your slightly-less-fun teacher from junior year. “I made sure that I asked teachers who knew me for at least one year,” shares Julia Kinoshita, a senior at HP Baldwin High School. “The teachers I chose to write my letters of recommendation knew me well enough to write about my personality and character as well as my work ethic in the classroom.”

Rule number one: go with someone who already knows your personality for a stronger letter. 

DON’T instantly go to the teacher who gave you the highest grade last year.

While it’s a good idea to hit up junior year teachers for many recommendations, think twice about whom you ask. Remember that a high grade earned in a class will already show on a transcript and catch an admissions officer’s eye, but the hard work behind that B+ in a different class isn’t necessarily reflected in your application. “I asked my AP Language and Comp teacher if she could write me one because I found that I grew the most as a student in her class and that she and I had a very close relationship by the end of the year,” says Sarah Wiszniak, a senior at Plainville High School. It might be a smarter move to ask a teacher whose class you worked hard in but ended up with a lower grade in than a teacher whose class you aced without putting in as much effort.

It also doesn’t hurt to think about what makes the most sense in terms of what you’re applying for. If you’re looking at schools with good, competitive chemistry programs, it’s probably a smarter move to ask for letters of recommendation from science or math teachers you’ve worked with who can speak to your strengths in the field you’re potentially interested in pursuing. They’ll hopefully have a better grasp on what different professors or other college officials look for in incoming students hoping to major in certain areas. Also be sure to double-check the application itself to make sure you’re asking someone in the right position to pen a letter for you. Some applications specifically ask for a teacher from a core subject like English, math, or science over someone like your band conductor, or require letters from a non-teaching faculty member like a counselor to write a letter on your behalf.

DO ask around for help picking potential letter writers.

It also never hurts to check in with friends or students who have already graduated to find out who they got to write recommendations. Find out if there’s a teacher or counselor known for writing particularly strong letters who isn’t too swamped to handle yours as well. Ask siblings, parents, current teachers, your guidance counselor, and anyone else you can think of for possible suggestions. Generate a list of good options, and use feedback from these people to help you narrow down who you decide to ask for a letter.

Check out HC’s list of the five most important people to connect with as a high school senior if you need some help thinking of people to add to the list.

DON’T be afraid to give your recommender some helpful suggestions.

Regardless of who you ask, keep in mind that this person doesn’t follow you around 24/7. Be sure you’re ready with a resume that lists things like your GPA, extracurricular activities, different classes you’ve taken, and awards or accomplishments you’ve earned. You should always have a resume or list of specific things you want your recommender to use or include when writing a letter of recommendation. They’ll thank you for saving them some time and making their job easier.

DO think about asking someone outside of your high school.

It’s no secret that teachers are swamped every fall with requests for recommendations, especially as application dates start to loom. Beat the crowds, and ask someone outside of your high school to draft a letter for you. Make sure you stick to the same criteria you’d use to select teachers though: Can this person speak to some of your strengths, or a few you’re especially proud of? Have they known you long enough to have a good sense of who you are and why you’d be a good fit for whatever it is you’re applying for? Can they speak about different positive traits outside of whatever context you know them in? Have they seen you achieve or accomplish something that would be good material for a letter? Do they know how hard you work towards goals? If the answer to these questions is yes, they’re probably a good candidate. Think about asking people like a coach or extra-curricular advisor, a job or internship supervisor, or someone from church or other religious organization you belong to.