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A Step-by-Step Guide to Your Recommendation Letters

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Unlike some other aspects of an application, you can’t do much to oversee or micromanage the content of your letters of recommendation. Whether you see it as a blessing or a curse, the truth of the matter is that your letters of recommendation are only valuable to admissions officers insofar as you can pledge that you weren’t involved in the process of writing them in any way.



That said, your application to college is just that—yours. In light of this, there are things you can do at every step of the process to ensure that you’re putting your best foot forward, and your letters of recommendation are no exception. Read on for a step-by-step guide to putting together your letters of recommendation.


First, the Basics: Do Letters of Recommendation Matter?

Every part of your application matters—up to and including the letters of recommendation submitted alongside your personal work. These comments do the important work of presenting you through the eyes of another. In most scenarios, this is an advantage rather than a detriment. Your teachers, coaches, and mentors aren’t looking to divulge dirty secrets about you or paint you in a bad light, and in the likely event that they sing your praises, that information means more coming from them than you.


That said, it is imperative that you resist the temptation to read your letters of recommendation before sending them to colleges. The CommonApp provides you with an optional waiver to sign, which allows you to pledge that you have not read your letters of recommendation before submitting them to colleges. You should certainly sign it. Submitting your application without signing this waiver effectively voids the impact your personal statements may otherwise have.


How Many Are There?

This will vary from school to school. You should double-check the requirements of each application you submit, but generally, if a college accepts the CommonApp, you should plan to submit two letters of recommendation.


As a rule of thumb, you should refrain from submitting any extra documents with your application unless you think it vitally necessary. Colleges receive thousands of applications each composed of several documents, and admissions officers must sift through all of this material in an extremely short time frame. If you decide to send in even one extra letter of recommendation, you must truly believe that each recommender you’ve commissioned will share different information that is vital to a college’s understanding of you as an applicant. Otherwise, your documents will be an annoyance rather than a benefit to your candidacy.


Who Should I Ask?

Thought it may seem obvious, you should start your list of possible recommenders with teachers that you think could easily write a glowing letter of recommendation for you. Was there a class that you totally loved? Did you struggle in a course that demanded you work especially hard and find that it paid off in the end? Have you become particularly close to a teacher who you feel really understands you as a person? Any of these scenarios are perfect grounds for considering a teacher as a possible writer for one of your recommendation letters. For more on this, check out our deep-dive on recommender relationships here.


On a (perhaps) related note, if you already know what you want to study in college, it can be helpful to hear from a teacher that has taught you related coursework in high school. This can be especially useful if you are a applying to a vocational or major-specific program, though if you’re on undecided on that front, you should read this and this first!


It can also be useful to think about showing range in your letters of recommendation, though it is by no means necessary. If you’re having trouble narrowing down your list of teacher recommenders, you can consider asking teachers that can attest to your skills in different disciplines.


Finally, it’s best to ask teachers that have taught you in junior or senior year of high school, who can attest to your current work ethic and reference recent assignments. On a similar note, a teacher from your senior year of high school can probably only write you a strong letter of recommendation if they taught you previously or advised a club in which you participated.



How and When to Ask

It’s never too early to reach out to your chosen recommenders. If your first-choice teacher will likely receive requests from many other students, you could ask at the end of junior year. If you’re unsure of whom to ask, it’s best to spend your summer deciding and return to school ready to request your letters in late August or early September.


At the very latest, you should reach out to teachers  a full month before their letters are due. Not only do you owe them the courtesy of providing ample time to write and submit a letter, but you must also budget in some time for the possibility that your first-choice recommender could somehow be indisposed.


When you email your teacher, coach, or mentor asking for a recommendation letter, you should let them know what school or schools you’ll send it to and what date it is due. It should go without saying that your email should be constructed as a question—never assume that a teacher will be able to write a letter for you until they agree to do so.


What You Can Do to Help

Once your recommenders have agreed to write a letter of recommendation for you, you can provide them with further information about yourself, your goals, and your accomplishments. Though you should certainly ask for letters only from people who already know you, it will be helpful to write these details down for their reference.


You can provide your writers with as much or as little information about yourself as you like. Your resume is a good place to start; send them a copy if you have one! You might also think a bit about why you chose this teacher and share that with them.  Did you work particularly hard in their class? What personal skills have you made use of or shown in their class? Why are they well positioned to speak on your behalf? Writing these things down for your teacher may be helpful as well.


In addition, you could at this point go into more depth about the colleges to which you’ll be sending their letters alongside your application. Let them know why you can picture yourself at those specific schools so that they know you’ve put thought into your college list.


You may want to set up a quick meeting with your recommender to go over some or all of this information in person. While it is helpful to have these things written down, you can probably do a better job explaining them out loud. More importantly, you don’t want to drop all of this information into your teacher’s lap remotely. He or she is doing you a favor, and you owe it to them to make the process as easy and enjoyable as possible.


Follow Up

The CommonApp should alert you when your recommenders have submitted their letters, even if you’ve waived your right to read them (as you should!). If you see that your teachers have not submitted their letters of recommendation a week before the due date, it can’t hurt to send them a quick email reminder of the due date.


Say Thank You!

This is arguably the most important part of the whole process! Thank your recommenders with a letter of gratitude—they are, after all, doing you a favor. As well, keep them updated on news about your application statuses as you receive it. They deserve to know how things pan out, and will likely want to be there for you when you hear both bad and good news!


For More Information

Need more guidance on how to approach the recommendation letter portion of your college applications? Check out these previous blog posts on the subject:


How to Get a Standout Recommendation Letter 

Will Getting a Letter from an Alumnus, Famous Person, or Government Official Boost my Chances?

Getting The Best Recommendation Letter

10 Tips For Talking To Your High School Teachers


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Lily Calcagnini
Senior Blogger

Short Bio
Lily is a History and Literature concentrator at Harvard University who is doing her darnedest to write a thesis about all of her favorite things at once: fashion, contemporary culture, art journalism, and Europe. A passionate learner, she cares deeply about helping high school students navigate the process of college admissions, whether it be through private essay tutoring or sharing advice on the CollegeVine blog.