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College Letters of Recommendation: Advice You Can Use

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The stress of applying to college is enough to make anyone feel anxious, but you shouldn’t drive yourself crazy. Whether you’re applying to two schools or ten, your application needs to paint a picture of who you are and what you can offer.

Grades, extracurricular activities, and application essays are definitely important when applying to college, but letters of recommendation can also provide in-depth information from people who know you well and have seen your strengths firsthand.

These letters can help set you apart from the masses of other students that are also applying to the same colleges that you are.

What are College Recommendation Letters?

Letters of recommendation are simply letters from teachers, counselors, principals, coaches, supervisors, or other authority figures that can express your strengths as both a student and member of the community. According to the College Board, it’s generally a good idea to request a letter of recommendation from someone that has known you long enough to form an opinion about your strengths and potential, but someone that does not go “too far back” in your life. This means that a letter from a teacher you had during your junior year of high school is preferable to a letter from your fifth-grade teacher.

Most colleges and universities ask for at least two recommendation letters along with your application. Be sure to learn the specifics of the schools where you are applying. In certain situations, you may be asked for a letter from one of your teachers in a specific subject area—for example, if you are auditioning for a spot in a university’s music department, you may need to submit a letter from one of your music instructors.

How to Request a Letter of Recommendation

It’s in your best interest to ask teachers and other potential “writers” if they’re willing to help you out with a letter of recommendation rather than assume they will do it. College application season means that other students are also scrambling for letters, so popular teachers may have already committed to writing letters for others.

Most people will be happy to you help you out by writing a letter, but be sure to ask well in advance—two or three weeks before your applications are due is a good timeframe estimate. This will give people plenty of time to write and let you meet your deadlines.

Don’t be shy when asking people to write college letters of recommendation for you. Remind them of specific achievements you’ve made in the classroom or on the playing field! You want a letter to showcase your abilities rather than sound like a generic form letter. The College Board even suggests providing a brief “resume” of sorts, a list of your recent activities and achievements both inside and outside the classroom.

6 Helpful Tips for Requesting College Letters of Recommendation

These 6 tips for requesting college letters of recommendation will come in handy while you complete your college applications.

1. Ask. As mentioned above, ask people if they are willing to write a letter of recommendation for your college application—don’t assume they will. They are taking time out of their busy schedules to help you out, and at this time of year some people have been asked to write multiple letters.

2. Have several potential “writers” in mind. Joanne Canyon-Heller, senior director of admission for Roosevelt University, told The Chicago Tribune that students should plan on two to three letters. She also stated that admissions committees generally prefer to see letters from people that have known you at different times and in different situations. This is why a combination of letters of recommendation from a teacher, a coach, and a volunteer coordinator at your community service project would be ideal!

3. Get letters that will “look good.” As explained by Lee Bierer in The Sacramento Bee," if you have a college major in mind, a letter from one of your teachers in that subject area would be preferable. A letter from a math teacher would make more sense than a letter from an English teacher if you are planning to major in engineering.

4. If at first you don’t succeed; try, try again. Don’t be discouraged if a teacher or coach says they are too busy or would prefer not to write a letter for you. A glowing letter of recommendation from someone that honestly wants to help you will be much better received than a half-hearted letter from someone that felt obligated.

5. Be specific. When someone agrees to write a letter for you, be clear about what you want them to do and give them specific instructions. As Canyon-Heller explained in The Tribune, some schools accept online recommendations through secure websites while others want to receive all letters of recommendation along with your college application. If your potential schools want letters of recommendation mailed directly to them, don’t forget to provide your writer with a stamped, addressed envelope. Oh, and make sure the address is correct!

6. Alumni recommendations. If the person writing a letter of recommendation for you has a personal tie to the college or university to which you’re applying, it is perfectly appropriate for them to mention that fact. A letter from an alumus can’t hurt!

Feel free to let us know any other tips for getting college recommendation letters that worked for you!

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Melissa Rhone+

Melissa Rhone earned her Bachelor of Music in Education from the University of Tampa. She resides in the Tampa Bay area and enjoys writing about college, pop culture, and epilepsy awareness.


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