NEW! Build your college list in 8 minutes with our free college list generator!

NEW! Build your college list in 8 minutes with our free college list generator!

Common App 101: Letters of Recommendation

Oct 8, 2020

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 unique nature of the letter of rec, we’ve put together a list of five things you need to consider before you ask someone to write your 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 the chance 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 asking them to be your recommender in the late spring of your junior year. If the teacher you are asking is currently one of your teachers, 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. You should approach your teacher in a one-on-one setting when asking for a 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 and 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 on your behalf, and ask them following the advice outlined above. Give them your resume, college list and other information about you to give them more context.
  2. Log into the Common Application website, and add your recommenders to your “Invite and Manage Recommenders” list.
  3. Go to the Recommenders and FERPA section of one of your schools in the My Colleges tab. Before you can assign your recommender(s), you’ll need to complete the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) release authorization process. Then, you can assign your recommender(s) to each school you are applying to. By assigning recommenders, you are notifying the Common App which letters you want to be sent to which school on your list. Make sure to meet each of your school’s specific requirements regarding letters of recommendation as you choose which letters are sent to which school. Some schools allow three letters while others only allow two, so be sure to double check each school’s policy on their admissions website.
  4. Your recommenders will be invited to submit their letter of recommendation online (either through Common App or Naviance eDocs, depending on the school).
  5. Check in periodically online. If the submission deadline is drawing near and your recommenders haven’t yet submitted their letters, check in with your recommender.
  6. Be patient with your recommenders throughout this process. Once they have submitted your letter, be sure to take the time to write them a hand written note thanking them for writing your letter of recommendation! Once you start hearing from colleges, keep them updated with your success stories, as they will want the chance to congratulate you!

For more guidance on how to assign your recommenders on the Common Application, read this.

3. Who to ask for a letter of recommendation

Perhaps the most important question you’ll ask 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 an other recommender. The first two are pretty self-explanatory; you can choose any teacher and counselor at your school, but don’t ask just anyone. You should 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. 

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 who you are 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 in the late spring of your junior year, and at minimum, at least two months before the submission 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 during the submission process. 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 submitting all of your materials ahead of time and 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 letters of recommendation, letters of rec are a great way to practice skills of self-advocacy, 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 Application for a reason. Much like your personal statement, a recommendation letter provides more insight into the person behind the application. In a way, your letters of rec provide an even better picture of you, because they allow 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.