How to Get Outstanding Letters of Recommendation for College
Why are Letters of Recommendation Important? 💡
Letters of recommendation (LOR) give college admissions an idea of an applicant's personality beyond just the numbers. There are different types of letters, as well as pros and cons for asking different adults to write them! Let’s get into it.
Types of Letters of Recommendation
Letters of recommendation (LORs) are usually from your guidance counselor, 2 academic teachers, and any optional supplemental letters. You can check what colleges require regarding LORs by Googling application requirements or finding it on your application portal. You should ask for letters at the end of junior year or the very beginning of senior year.
Why do I need a letter from my guidance counselor?
Your counselor evaluates you and puts you in the context of your whole school. Their school report provides information such as your transcripts, school environment, number of AP classes are offered, and data that help colleges see the context that you were in.
Benefits of Letters of Recommendations 📝
- Allow colleges to learn more about you as an applicant
- Provides college admissions committee information about you on a more personal level beyond your GPA, transcripts, and test scores
- If the admissions committees are between two applicants, they might look to letters of recommendation to help them make their decision. Having a glowing letter of recommendation helps you stand out as an applicant!
Check out this guide to learn more about what else colleges are looking for in your college application.
How to Ask for a Letter of Recommendation
Choosing Who To Ask 👥
- First, think about all the teachers that you have had recently. Colleges generally ask for teachers from 11th or 12th grade because they want to learn about the "latest version" of you.
- Secondly, think about what subjects these teachers teach. Is the program you're applying to relevant to a teacher’s expertise? In general, colleges that ask for two teachers often recommend one being from STEM and the other from humanities/social sciences.
- Now try to answer the following questions:
- Who can speak to your strengths both academically and as a person? Think about what your relationships are like with each teacher and who knows you best.
- Does this teacher genuinely know how you behave or what you are passionate about?
- Is there a class that you truly took the initiative to improve yourself and the teacher sees your efforts?
- Which teachers may have been a part of an extracurricular that you are passionate about? For example, do you know a teacher who may have been your biology teacher and your advisor for the Science Olympiad team?
Note: Do not add any more than 2 supplemental "other" letters of rec! You never want to add anything "redundant." The extra letters of rec are truly optional–only add more if they provide more, unseen information to who you are as an applicant.
Creating "Brag" Sheets 💁
Brag sheets showcase your involvement in clubs, your achievements, and/or your jobs. You should always send one to your recommenders so that you can support them as they write this letter. Schools sometimes have their own brag sheets to fill out and send, so check with your guidance office. Below is a brag sheet template if your school does not offer one.
Examples of Info to Give Your Counselor for Your Letter 💡
- Adjectives and characteristics you would use to describe yourself
- Extracurricular, volunteer, leadership, and summer experiences
- Include any specific contributions you made to your activities
- Include any leadership positions you held
- Awards and achievements
- Academic strengths
- What you are interested in studying in college (it’s okay if you don’t know!)
- Which classes you enjoyed most in high school
- Potential career interests
Questions to Answer 🤔
Personalized to the teacher and class
(start your letter with personalized info and/or a short message with gratitude)
- What did you like most about the class?
- Why did you pick this teacher to be your recommender?
- What did you learn about yourself through this class and the teacher? How did you grow?
- What was the most meaningful takeaway from this class? Will this takeaway last with you in the future?
- What challenged you the most, in a good way?
- Describe any anecdotes and stories from the class, especially those that you and your recommender share.
- What are your intended career plans? Explain.
- What colleges are you considering? Please note ones that are early action and early decision. (Here, you can also include why you think these colleges fit you. For example, if you picked liberal arts colleges, why do those fit you better?)
- What do you hope to learn in college?
- What major(s) are you interested in? Where did this interest stem from?
- Describe some of your best qualities and give examples as to how you demonstrate these qualities.
- What is your philosophy on life?
- What are you especially proud of?
- What are some of your unnoticed qualities? Provide an example.
- What or who inspires you?
- Are there any extenuating circumstances that have affected you during high school? (Provides context and background. Examples include, but are not limited to: moving, illnesses, adversities, family challenges, accidents, etc.)
- What activities have you participated in? Note any leadership positions as well. (Include activities both inside and outside of school.)
- Which activities are most meaningful to you? Share any notable experiences.
- What awards have you earned?
- Have you participated in community/volunteer activities? If so, please share and be specific. What did you gain from these experiences?
- What are some of your hobbies?
- Share any part-time job and internship experiences, as well as any notable impact.
- Share any personal contributions to [your school]. (This helps your letter be different from students of other schools.)
- Describe any special programs/projects (research, extra work in a certain subject, selective programs, independent study, etc. - any standout factor!).
- What do you love to learn both in school and out of school?
- Have you experienced growth over your high school career? If so, please explain. Share any difficult and triumphant moments.
Asking for a Letter of Recommendation 💬
Checklist for Counselor Letters ✔️
- Provide your guidance counselor information to help them write your letter
- Depending on your school/counselor, there may be a sheet for you to fill out with relevant information. This is often called a RAVE sheet or a BRAG sheet.
- If you aren’t sure if there is anything to fill out, ask your counselor!
- When you give your counselor information to help them write your letter, be specific and comprehensive. Include anything you would like them to highlight!
- Keep in mind, counselors have to write A LOT of letters. Make the information you give them as helpful as it can be!
- Set up a College Meeting with your guidance counselor, if possible. This is a great way for them to get to know you and your college goals and for you to ask any questions.
- Identify deadlines and communicate this with your counselor as early on as possible (especially if you are applying ED!)
- Thank them after!
Checklist for Teacher Letters 👩🏾🏫
- Figure out how many teacher recommendation letters each of your colleges/programs require
- Ask your teachers for a letter of recommendation/
- Ask them with enough time in advance. The earlier, the better!
- It is typical to ask a minimum of two teachers, but this can vary based on college/program requirements.
- Have backup teachers in mind in case the teachers you ask are unable to.
- Keep in mind that teachers are busy, and many students are asking for recommendations. Don’t take it personally if they say no!
- Once you have asked them and they have said yes, invite your teacher to be a recommender on the Common App
- Give your teacher any relevant information they may need to help them write your letter.
- Giving your teachers a copy of your high school resume is a great way to provide them with info.
- Identify deadlines and make sure this is communicated with your teachers
- Thank them after!
Sample Email Template 📧
If you are at school, you should ask your teacher in person and alone. That way, you can get the most genuine response. If you are not at school, you can send them an email like the following sample.
How are you doing?
My name is [your name] and I was in your [class name] class [last year]. I am applying to college this year, and I have been asked to provide a letter of recommendation from a teacher. I would greatly appreciate it if you could write this letter for me.
[discuss the teacher's impact on you, insert your intended college major and future aspirations]
I have attached my transcripts and brag sheet. The deadline for my first application is [deadline date].
I know how busy you are, and I thank you for taking the time to write this letter for me. If there is any other information that I can provide, please don't hesitate to email me.
💡REMEMBER to provide:
- The colleges you are applying to
- Your intended major/career goals
- Why you're asking them to be your recommender
- Application portal → make sure they know they only write one general letter
- Resume/brag sheet (see below for a template!)
- Can include transcript/test scores here to show your academic side
Recommendation Letters in the Context of College Application Portals 💻
Assigning Recommendation Letters on College Applications 🗃️
You can have different recommenders for each college application! You can do this because recommenders write a general letter (not specific to a college). For example, you could use two science teachers' letters of rec for one college, and then pick one science teacher and another social studies teacher for MIT.
All your letters of rec will be in your portal (though you can't see the content), and you assign which recommenders you want for each application. This is important not only for the college's recommendations but also for what program you applied to. Just like how supplement essays help tailor your application to the college, picking the right recommenders follows a similar manner! As most people apply under the same major, they will just ask for one STEM and one humanities/social sciences. (Nevertheless, there is no one-size-fits-all solution to college apps.)
Waiving FERPA Rights 🏡
Always remember to waive your FERPA rights! FERPA stands for Family Education Rights and Privacy Act. Essentially, it protects the privacy of student records and allows you to view letters of recommendation.
The Common App, for example, will ask you whether you would like to waive your FERPA rights.
If you waive your rights, you are letting the colleges know that you WILL NOT read the letters of recommendation (which will make the letters more credible in the eyes of the admissions officers)
If you don't waive your rights, teachers and counselors may feel less inclined to write your letter and will feel as though you don't trust them.
It is generally recommended to waive your FERPA rights, but it is ultimately up to your discretion.
For a PDF version of this guide, click here!
Recommendation Letters Progress Tracker⏰
Here is an example of a rec letter progress tracker. Feel free to personalize it however fits you best!