Scoring high test scores, writing a compelling personal statement, and maintaining a high GPA are all challenging tasks, but at least you have the comfort of having control over these critical components of your college application. A letter of recommendation, on the other hand, requires you to put trust in a teacher or advisor to advocate for you and help you get into your top choice universities. Because of the uniqueness of the letter of rec, we’ve put together a list of five things you need to consider before you ask someone for a letter of recommendation:

1. How to ask for a Letter of Recommendation

Unless you’ve applied for competitive internships or summer programs before, you might not have had to learn the etiquette for asking for a recommendation letter. The first thing to bear in mind is that, as awkward and new as this feels for you, your teacher has likely written dozens of recommendation letters over the years. They already know the drill, so let that give you comfort if you have been working yourself up about asking them. Plus, if you’re asking someone who already has a strong personal connection with you, they want the best for your future and are eager to help you achieve the goals you’ve set your sights on! Still, it doesn’t hurt to give your recommender a heads up by emailing them over summer to set up a meeting at the beginning of the academic year. Once the school year begins, you can approach your teacher before or after class in a one-on-one setting to ask for your letter of rec. It’s a good idea to come prepared with a short blurb about why you want them to write your recommendation letter, and remind them what goals you have, schools you’re applying to, etc. You want to provide as much context as possible so they can tailor the letter toward your application or help complement what you’re writing about or including in your application.

2. What to do

The step-by-step process of submitting your recommendation letter through the Common App will look something like this:

  1. Select the people you want to write and submit a letter of rec for you.
  2. Give them your resume and send them info about you to give them more context
  3. Go online and invite your recommenders to the common app.
  4. Your recommenders will submit their letter of recommendation online (either through Common App or Naviance eDocs, depending on the school).
  5. Check in periodically online, and if the deadline is drawing near and they haven’t submitted it, check in with your recommender.
  6. Thank your recommender and be patient with them throughout the process. Once you start hearing from colleges, keep them updated with your success stories!

3. Who to ask for a letter of recommendation

Perhaps the most important question you’ll be asking yourself is who to ask for a letter of recommendation. Depending on the university to which you’re applying, you may need three or more different recommenders: a counselor, teacher, and other recommender. The first two are pretty self-explanatory; you can choose any teacher and counselor at your school, but don’t just ask anyone. You should choose people who know you well and who you believe will put in 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. The third category, “other recommender” might be a little more confusing. Commonapp.org describes “other recommenders” as Arts Teacher, Clergy, Coach, College Access Counselor, Employer, Family Member, Peer, [or] Other.” As you know, with more freedom comes more responsibility, so you should be extra scrutinizing when you select your third recommender. This recommendation letter is a chance to reveal much more than what your test scores and resume can reveal about you; choose a recommender who understands your character, interests, and potential, and who will be able to relay that to your college admissions officer. For all of your letter writers, you should ideally choose someone who has known you for multiple semesters and can provide honest and unique insight into you as a person.

4. When to start the process

Since many schools have different deadlines, and early action and early decision applications complicate this even further, there’s no single date by which you should request a letter of recommendation. In general though, we recommend asking your recommenders for a letter a minimum of two months before the deadline. This will give your letter writers plenty of time to review your resume, write the letter, and tackle any technical issues they might encounter.  Keep in mind, you can submit your application through The Common App before your recommenders submit their letters. That means you can’t use your teachers’ potential procrastination as an excuse for your own. Getting your application in early means less stress and more time for senior year, so make sure you stay proactive about getting in all of your materials ahead of time and also check in with your teachers to get your letter in on time

5. Why you should ask for a letter of recommendation

Aside from the fact that most college applications will require you to provide one or more recommendation letters, letters of rec are a great way to practice skills of self-advocating, time-management, and even humility by asking someone for a favor that can have a major impact on your future. The letter of recommendation is an integral part of the common app for a reason. Much like your personal statement, a recommendation letter provides more insight to the person behind the application. In a way, your letters of rec provide an even better picture of you, because it’s a chance for your prospective colleges to see you through the eyes of a trusted teacher, counselor, or mentor.

Applying to college involves a lot of moving pieces, and even those moving pieces have moving pieces! Asking for letters of recommendation is about a lot of things: timing, manners, common app stipulations, but most importantly it’s about connection. Whether you’re entering freshman or senior year, make sure you focus on establishing strong relationships with your advisors and teachers not only so that they make you look good on paper, but so that you have a strong support system to help you throughout the lengthy and mentally-exhausting college application process.

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