Applying to College: How to Get a Great Recommendation Letter

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Letters of recommendation are an important component of the college application process. Not only do they provide another perspective into who you are as a student, but they also lend insight into who you are as a person, too. Great college recommendation letters will give an admissions committee additional information about your high school achievements while offering a sense of who you are and how you go about achieving your goals.


In order to get a standout college recommendation, you’ll need to take a couple of careful steps in advance. In this post we’ll outline what you can do to ensure that you get the best recommendation letters possible, from making yourself aware of each college’s specific requirements to carefully selecting your recommender, and more. Keep reading to learn how you can get standout college recommendations letters!


Do you need a recommendation letter for college applications?


Different colleges will have different requirements regarding college recommendations. Most will ask for a specific number of recommendations (usually two or three, but not always), and many will request that specific people write your recommendations, such as guidance counselors and teachers. Some schools will also allow you to select an additional recommender. This person could be another teacher or counselor, or it could be someone else altogether like an employer, coach, or mentor.


Before you can add a recommender to your online application, whether it’s the Common App or another version, you will need to decide if you’ll waive your FERPA rights. FERPA stands for the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, and it is essentially legislation that guarantees you the right to review your educational records, including college application materials like recommendation letters.


While a college cannot require you to waive your FERPA rights, an individual recommender can refuse to write for you if you don’t, and a college can see whether you’ve waived these rights or not. We highly recommend that you waive your FERPA rights. Doing so indicates that you have nothing to hide and are confident that you will receive a great recommendation, without requiring that you get to review it. Doing so also tells your recommender that you trust him or her. Waiving your FERPA rights is one of the first steps towards a standout recommendation.


Focus on Teachers and Staff Who Know You Well


Although most colleges dictate that you must submit a recommendation from a teacher, you are still the one who gets to select which teacher you ask to write it.


Before you choose who will write your recommendations, you should have some idea of what your recommender is going to be asked to do. Essentially, he or she will be providing the college with more information about your accomplishments, personality, and habits of work, often in comparison to other students your recommender has taught.


Because it can be difficult to quantify work habits and personality, you will naturally want to choose a teacher who has known you for a prolonged period, has worked with you closely, and who has taught you recently. Ideally, you’ll select someone who has shown appreciation for your work in the past. Don’t just choose a teacher because they are your favorite. Instead, consider teachers from different disciplines and those who notice your academic progress and contributions.

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Give Your Recommenders The Information and Materials They Need


It is always best to get ahead of the game when it comes to recommendation letters. Not only will the teacher appreciate plenty of lead time, but you are also less likely to get a letter from someone who’s already written four recommendations that day and is just hoping to be done soon.


The ideal time to approach teachers about writing your recommendation letters is during the spring of your junior year. At this point, next year’s applications will not yet have been released, but at least your recommender can get started thinking about what to say. At the very least, you should request recommendation letters a month before their submission deadline.


To ensure that your recommender is set up for success, be sure to tell him or her how and where to submit the recommendations. If you are applying using multiple application forms, he or she may need to fill out additional paperwork.


In addition, be sure to supply your recommenders with a copy of your transcript and a brief resume of your academic achievements, interests, and goals. Remind them of your accomplishments and progress in their classrooms, especially if there are specifics examples you’d like mentioned.


Follow up a week before the recommendation is due to make sure it was sent. Then, be certain to write a heartfelt thank you note to express your gratitude.


Be Cautious About Sending Extra Recommendation Letters


What could possibly be better than three glowing letters of recommendation? If your answer is four, think again.


It’s important to follow the instructions on your college applications closely. Admissions officers already have so much material to review that submitting extras could show that either you don’t follow directions or you have no regard for their time.


That being said, if there is an additional person who you feel could provide a great recommendation letter, you may contact the admissions counselor to ask if it is okay to send an additional letter. Keep in mind, though, that it may not get reviewed, even if you’re told that’s alright to send along.


If you’re just starting to plan how you’ll get the best college recommendation letter that ever graced the desk of an admissions committee, make sure that you plan your approach carefully.


Junior year is a great time to ask for recommendation letters, and we can help you create a strong strategy. Get guidance during your second semester of Junior Year through our  College Strategy Program — one of the only programs designed to help Juniors get prepared for college admissions.


To learn more about getting the best recommendation letters possible, check out these posts:


How Important are Letters of Recommendation?

What Makes a Good Recommendation Letter?

Getting the Best Recommendation Letter

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Kate Sundquist
Senior Blogger at CollegeVine
Short bio
Kate Koch-Sundquist is a graduate of Pomona College where she studied sociology, psychology, and writing before going on to receive an M.Ed. from Lesley University. After a few forays into living abroad and afloat (sometimes at the same time), she now makes her home north of Boston where she works as a content writer and, with her husband, raises two young sons who both inspire her and challenge her on a daily basis.