Letters of Recommendation: What Every College Bound Student Should Know

Letters of recommendation are important because they put a college applicant’s transcript into a meaningful context. College admissions professionals often cite grades and academic rigor as the best predictors of academic success on the college level. But these two predictors do not tell the whole story. Grades and courses do not provide information about a student’s strengths, challenges, personality, character and work ethic—all of which are significant indicators of a student’s ability to be academically successful and contribute to the campus community. Letters of recommendation provide this valuable, contextual information.

Who writes the letters of recommendation?

There are three types of letters of recommendation: the school counselor letter, the teacher letter and the “other recommender” letter. Typically, colleges require a letter of recommendation from two teachers as well as the applicant’s school counselor. However, it is important to read the instructions on each college’s website to understand the exact requirements. Some colleges require fewer letters of recommendation and some colleges allow an “other recommender” letter for applicants who feel that an endorsement from a community member such as clergy, an employer or a coach would add value to their application.

What is the difference between a “teacher letter” and a “counselor letter”?

Teacher letters help admissions counselors determine if a student is an academic fit for their institution. Teachers may choose to comment on a student’s intellectual curiosity, work ethic, ability to work as part of a group, improvement over the course of the year or how a student handles challenging topics in the subject area. Teachers have a unique relationship to the student which will allow them to comment on a student’s organizational, public speaking and writing skills. Teachers often give examples of how a student approached a specific project and how they interacted with other classmates.

The school counselor letter of recommendation helps admissions officers understand a student’s character and personality. School counselor letters may also address inconsistencies on a student’s transcript. Transcripts that have inconsistent grades or a semester or year of low grades can only be accurately interpreted with more information. Admissions officers will often look for an explanation in a student’s school counselor’s letter of recommendation. A well written school counselor letter will explain to admissions officers how an applicant is likely to make a positive contribution to the campus community.

Which teachers should a student ask for letters of recommendation?

  • A student’s favorite teacher is not always the right choice for the teacher letter.
  • Ask teachers from junior and senior year. Students develop rapidly over the high school years. Colleges want to know about the student who will join their campus, not the student as he or she was two or three years ago. How a student performs in class junior and senior years will give admissions officers a more accurate picture of how he/she will perform in college than academic performance from freshman and sophomore years.
  • Ask academic (not elective) subject teachers. Colleges want to hear about a student’s performance in math, English, science, history and foreign language much more than art, music and woodshop. However, if a student is planning to pursue a major in an elective subject, such as culinary arts, art, theater or music, it is appropriate to submit one of the two teacher letters from the relevant elective teacher.
  • Students planning to pursue a major in a STEM field should ask at least one science or math teacher for a letter of recommendation.
  • In most cases, I recommend a student vary his or her letters. For example, don’t ask two English teachers for letters of recommendation. Letters from teachers of differing academic subjects are less likely to be repetitive in their content and observations and will generally add more valuable insight to the application.
  • Ask teachers that are known to be skilled writers. Although college admissions counselors are not “grading” students on the style of the teacher’s letter, poor writing may distract from the content.
  • It is not necessary to ask for a letter from a teacher in whose course a student has earned an “A”. Sometimes, a teacher whose course a student struggled with can provide the most insightful and helpful information to admissions counselors. A letter describing a student’s willingness to face a challenge, seek out extra help or overcome a barrier to success may reflect much better on that student than a letter describing success in a class in which the student breezed through.

When should students ask their teachers and school counselor for a letter of recommendation?

Ask for recommendation letters during the spring of junior year or beginning of senior year (for senior year teachers.) It is important to be near the top of a teacher’s list because some teachers put a cap on the number of letters they are willing to write. This is especially true of the more popular teachers or teachers of the academic classes perceived to be more rigorous than others. Additionally, a letter that is written when the teacher is fresh, not after he/she has grown weary of writing letters for students will likely be more comprehensive. Students should realize that it takes time for teachers to prepare a letter. Asking at the last minute reflects poorly on the student and may impact the quality or timeliness of the letter.

How should I ask for a letter of recommendation?

Whenever possible, students should ask for a letter in person. The teacher will be spending their personal time outside the classroom to prepare the best possible letter. It is not thoughtful to send an email. It is not appropriate for a parent to request the letter on behalf of the student. While schools remain closed due to COVID-19, a video chat may be an appropriate substitute for an in person request. Once a teacher has agreed to write a letter for a student, the student should ask the teacher if there is any information that would be helpful to provide. Some teachers ask students for a resume, transcript and/or “brag sheet” where the student answers questions about their strengths, interests and goals. Be ready to provide any or all of these if requested.

What should students do if they would like their teacher or school counselor to write something specific in their recommendation letters?

There are instances when a student would like to request that something specific be included in the letter of recommendation. For example, perhaps a student excelled at a specific project in class or was consistently helpful to other students. Or, in the case of the school counselor letter, perhaps a student missed a lot of school and the absences affected his/her grades. Students should discuss these scenarios with their teachers and school counselor and decide if it is best for the applicant to address them in the “additional information” section of the Common Application or if it is best for the recommendation letter to address them. A word of caution: When someone else writes about you, you lose control over the message. It may provide greater clarity if the student addresses these matters directly rather than rely on either a teacher or school counselor to do so.

How are letters of recommendation sent to colleges?

Letters are sent to colleges electronically. However, the process does vary between high schools so a student’s school counselor is the best source of information for the process of getting letters to the colleges. In general, for colleges using the Common Application, teachers and school counselors upload their letters directly to the Common Application website. If a high school uses the college planning program Naviance, the letters of recommendation are uploaded to Naviance. For colleges who do not use the Common Application, follow the directions on the college’s website for sending letters of recommendation.

Should students waive their right to see their letters of recommendation?

Under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974, students who are age 18 and over have the right to request access to their letters of recommendation after they have received an acceptance letter and chosen to attend a particular college. A student’s college application will ask whether they want to waive this right. It is beneficial to the student to waive the right. Doing so assures the admissions officer reviewing the application that the recommender was candid and honest because he/she knew that the student would not see the letter. Admissions counselors may discount the importance of a letter which they know to have been reported back to the student.

How should students follow up with their teachers and school counselor after the letters are written?

Students should always send a thank you card to their recommenders. Additionally, as acceptances start rolling in, students should let their recommenders know where they were accepted and what their college plans are. Teachers and school counselors work hard on these letters. They deserve and will appreciate a “thank you” and they will enjoy the opportunity to share in the student’s progress towards college.

Image of Michelle McAnaney, founder of The College Spy.

Michelle McAnaney is the founder of The College Spy, a full service independent educational consulting firm that assists students and families across the US and internationally with the college selection and application process. Prior to founding The College Spy, Michelle was a guidance counselor and educator for more than 15 years, including serving as the Director of Guidance at two high schools, an adjunct college professor and a GED tutor. Michelle holds a master’s degree in school counseling and a bachelor’s degree in human development. She completed UC Irvine’s certificate program in educational consulting and is a MBTI (Myers-Briggs Type Indicator) Certified Practitioner and a NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming) Master Practitioner. Michelle visits over 40 colleges each year so that she has first-hand knowledge of the colleges and universities her clients will be considering. You can find her on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn and on The College Spy Podcast.