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3 Common Mistakes Students Should Avoid When Asking for College Letters of Recommendation

Apr 15, 2024

Letters of recommendation are critical components of students’ college applications—they offer compelling insights into students’ personalities and academic skills from the perspective of a teacher or mentor. Because of the unique nature of the letter of recommendation, it is of paramount importance for students to approach the process of requesting letters with strategy and effort. Far from simply sending emails to their intended recommenders, students should take initiative, and consider what they want schools to know about them, which of their teachers or mentors could attest to these qualities, and how they can help their recommender reflect their achievements effectively. For juniors who are beginning to consider their potential recommenders, here are three common mistakes to avoid when seeking standout letters of recommendation:

1. Asking the wrong recommenders.

Perhaps the most important question you’ll ask yourself is: “Who should I ask to write my letters of recommendation?” Depending on the schools to which you’re applying, you will likely need recommendations from one or two teachers, a counselor and perhaps one other recommender. Many students make the mistake of asking a teacher or mentor who they assume will be impressive to the admissions committee, but who cannot speak to their personality or achievements in a meaningful way. Choose a teacher who knows you well and who you believe will put time and effort into writing a recommendation letter that reflects your unique personality and skill set. Choosing a teacher who also advises an extracurricular activity you’re in or a teacher you’ve known since sophomore year can help ensure you have a meaningful connection. Choosing a teacher who can speak to your passion for a specific field, particularly if it’s one you plan to study in college, can also make for a strong recommendation letter.

If you have struggled in a class and worked hard to improve your performance, asking a teacher who can attest to your growth and persistence in the classroom will also add meaningful context to your application.

2. Asking on short notice.

Time is of the essence in the college admissions process, and juniors must approach potential recommenders with ample lead time, as teachers need plenty of time to craft thoughtful and compelling letters. Yet, all too often, students make the mistake of waiting until the last minute to request letters of recommendation, leaving their chosen recommenders scrambling to meet deadlines.

Asking on short notice not only places undue pressure on recommenders but also compromises the quality of the letters they produce. Rushed recommendations are prone to errors, inaccuracies, and oversights, detracting from the student’s overall applications. To avoid this pitfall, juniors should initiate conversations with potential recommenders during the spring of their junior year, allowing for sufficient time to discuss expectations, provide relevant materials, and allow for thoughtful reflection. In the words of the Common App, “The more advance notice you give, the more time they have to craft a well-written letter.”

3. Asking without providing specifics.

While your teachers or mentors may be familiar with your academic performance and personal strengths, they don’t know the particular strengths and weaknesses of your overall application, nor are they aware of the overarching narrative you are seeking to convey through your materials. Because of this, it is essential that students take an active role in informing their recommenders of the particular qualities, skills, or contextual information that they want their recommendation letters to convey. The most important points to include in your request to your recommenders are:

  • The Why: A short blurb about why you want them to write your recommendation letter
  • Your Resume: Your updated resume of experience and extracurriculars
  • A Goals List: The list of your academic or vocational goals
  • A Schools List: The list of schools you’re considering applying to

Finally, once you have decided who to ask and outlined the information you want to be reflected in your letters of recommendation, be sure to ask your recommenders if they would be willing to write letters on your behalf in a way that is personal and expresses your gratitude. If you are asking a current teacher, you should ask them privately after class or during an extra help session. If you plan to ask a teacher whose class you aren’t currently in, you can stop by their classroom in between classes, before or after school, or write them an email asking them to meet.

For more information on requesting letters of recommendation, check out Command Education’s complete guide!

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