Gathering letters of recommendation may seem like a formality, but it’s actually another great opportunity to highlight what makes you unique and to emphasize more of your strengths.
Recommendations are Important
Letters of recommendation are important components of your application and can inform the admissions committee of things that may not be visible in your GPA or test scores. As a result, the letters of recommendation play a much larger role in admissions decisions than many students typically think. It’s almost like the essay, except the letters show what people who know you think about you, rather than what you think.
So, what makes a good letter of recommendation? First, for whatever college you’re applying to, you should be sure to follow their instructions. Many schools request letters from specific people: teachers, guidance counselors, etc. Almost all schools forbid letters from family members. Understand what they are asking of you, and be sure to meet those specifications. Next, within those stipulations, find letter writers who know you well and who can tell the college about you as a person: your work habits, your personality, the way you interact with your peers, the way you carry yourself in a classroom, the details of a specific challenge you met with grace, or something similar.
Given those needs, the letter writer should typically be a person who has known you for a while (unless you want them to discuss something that happened within the past few months). That means that if you’re using a teacher, it should probably be a teacher you had in your junior year or prior—remember, you’ll be collecting these letters in the fall of your senior year, so you probably won’t have known your current teachers very long, unless you had them in past years as well. You should also consider, if the college allows it, recommendations from bosses, coaches, club advisors, and similar mentors. Do not automatically assume someone is willing to write you a letter or that the letter will be positive. Be sure to formally ask them if they are willing to write you a favorable letter of recommendation.
If you need recommendations, make sure you give your teachers at LEAST two months to write them. They have lives outside of school and you aren’t the only person asking for recs. -Tad M., Duke TIP alum
Request Your Letters Early
Once you decide who to ask, do so at least six-eight weeks before the application deadline. You don’t want your letter writer to have to rush, and most teachers and counselors will be writing letters for many students. You should also sit down with them to explain why you asked them. Doing so will give you a chance to remind them about specific instances they can write about.
In addition, sometimes it can be helpful to send an extra letter of recommendation. For instance, if a college requires two letters from teachers, and you have a boss whom you’ve known for years and who can speak to your work ethic in ways the teachers can’t, you might consider having her write a third letter to boost your application. However, you should send extra letters with caution—there’s a chance it might make it seem as though you simply were not following instructions. (Although some colleges will give you the option of submitting more than the requested amount under some circumstances.)
For more on letters of recommendation, check out How to Get a Great Letter of Recommendation.