How to Get Glowing Letters of Recommendation for Your College Applications

August 17, 2023
College Admissions

One of the most essential pieces of your college application is recommendation letters. Most colleges request one to two recommendations from teachers along with one from a school counselor. Additional letters could also be from coaches, employers, or extracurricular mentors. Letters of recommendation can be a fantastic way of showcasing yourself. You present yourself through the eyes of an unbiased educator, letting schools know that the version of yourself that you present is authentic. They also show how you work in an academic setting and how you engage in classrooms. Letters of recommendation can make or break your application. However, it can be daunting to approach them, as you have no control over their content. Here are some important things to keep in mind when you are seeking glowing letters of recommendation.

Know the Purpose of Letters of Recommendation

Letters of recommendation are meant to show what your grades, standardized test scores, extracurricular activities, and essays cannot. They can demonstrate your work ethic, study habits, thoughtfulness, intellectual curiosity, ability to overcome adversity, and willingness to take appropriate risks. Recommendations help colleges see your candidacy from a more holistic perspective. They are also essential in ensuring that you are being authentic in your application. Colleges want to make sure that the individual they see through your essays is the same as the person who shows up to class every day. These letters show colleges whether or not you will work in their environment from the perspective of those who know it best—educators.

College Recommender Packet

Although you should be asking teachers who know you, it is unrealistic to expect your teacher to know everything about you. Giving them an informational packet about yourself can make their jobs infinitely easier and can greatly improve the quality of your letter of recommendation. You should start your packet with your name and contact information, so they can easily find it when searching through papers and so they can ask you any questions they may have. You should also include a CV highlighting your extracurricular activities and volunteer experience. It can also be helpful to outline some of your biggest achievements in your extracurricular activities, like projects you spearheaded. Keep it relatively short and avoid including work experience.

You should also include basic statistics about yourself as a student, like your GPA, SAT and ACT scores, and AP Test scores. Lastly, include a list of the colleges to which you are interested in applying and the areas you are interested in studying. This can allow recommenders to better tailor their letters to a specific audience. If you are interested in STEM subjects, your teachers may choose to highlight diligence, analytical ability, and academic achievement, but if you applying to humanities programs, teachers may instead highlight your contributions to class conversations, your writing aptitude, and your public speaking ability. This also provides teachers with more information about who you are, your ambitions, and your goals, enabling them to feel more connected to you and more invested in your success.

When to Ask

We usually ask that students request letters of recommendation before the summer going into senior year. Many teachers prefer writing letters at that time because they have more time to do so. Some may ultimately write them when school is back in session, but asking well in advance is the best way to go. Do not wait until the week before the application deadline to ask. As deadlines approach, make sure to politely remind your recommenders about your letters of support. They may have many to write, and you do not want them to forget about yours!

Who Is a Quality Recommender?

A quality recommender is someone who knows you well and understands your vision for the future. We advise students to get recommendations from teachers who have taught them during their junior year. This is more likely to be someone who has observed your recent personal and academic growth. However, if available, mentors who have known you for many years often provide the best recommendations. If you have classes that span multiple years—such as theater, music, newspaper, and yearbook classes—and are taught by the same teacher, ask those teachers for letters of recommendation first. They have seen you grow as a person, as a student, and (often) as an artist. You can also get recommendations from additional non-academic mentors such as athletic coaches, drama teachers, or employers. These can show that you are a well-rounded student and that you can work well both as a student and as a teammate. Instead of focusing on your academic achievements, they often focus on other skills and personal qualities, such as kindness, leadership, diligence, and artistic or athletic talent.

These recommenders also often have a stronger personal connection to you, as they have worked with you over multiple years. If you are applying to a specific program, you should get recommendations from instructors who teach subjects related to that program. For example, if you are applying to an engineering school, we advise you to request at least one recommendation from a math or science teacher. Also, take into account the teacher's writing ability. A teacher who can write an honest, convincing letter of recommendation is important. What matters is that the teacher knows you well and is able to write a strong letter of recommendation.

Letters of Recommendation from a Guidance Counselor

Guidance counselors usually write letters of recommendation for many students, so they can sometimes sound generic. If you provide them with the aforementioned packet, it gives them specific points to mention. Colleges often ask guidance counselors to fill out questionnaires to showcase the student and contextualize the high school they attended. This is crucial in understanding you as an applicant. Most importantly, if possible, you should make time to sit down with your guidance counselor to frankly discuss yourself as a person, your aspirations, and what you are looking for in your future education. Not only will this help your recommendation letter, but, during such a meeting, the counselor will often provide interesting insight and meaningful advice. Unlike teachers, guidance counselors are often hired to help students plan their education, including collegiate education. They can help in many areas, from college planning to scheduling to study tips. Your college counselor is a meaningful resource, and if you can connect with them, they can write glowing letters of recommendation that make you stand out to admissions teams.

Final Tip

When you set up your recommenders in the Common Application or other college application platform, be sure to waive your right to view the recommendation. This is important because colleges will find the letters more authentic if they know that your teachers are reassured that you will not have access to them. Also, make sure to show your appreciation to your recommenders. You can do this by writing a thank-you note or by thanking them in person. If you have the time, making small gifts can go a long way. Appreciate that teachers and guidance counselors have high-stress, often thankless jobs with long working hours.

In summary, letters of recommendation are a critical part of the application process. If you need assistance applying for colleges, our advisors at AtomicMind are here to support you throughout the entire process. Feel free to contact us for guidance.