When you think about the college application process, you probably imagine a lot of writing — whether it’s essays, descriptions of extracurricular activities, or simply filling out demographic information. But there’s another equally important part of the application, written entirely by someone else and beginning months before you even begin to apply: letters of recommendation.
While academics, activities and essays are certainly important factors in college admissions, letters of recommendation are sometimes equally if not more important. If an admissions panel is on the fence about admitting you, a glowing recommendation has the power to sway them into an offer of admission. On the other hand, a lackluster recommendation may send you straight into rejection territory. Here, we take a deep dive into the letters of recommendation — what they are, how to obtain them and from whom, and when to start.
WHO should you ask?
Colleges typically require recommendations from at least two teachers. Depending on the program to which you are applying, colleges may specify the recommender’s subject area of instruction. For example, a school might request one letter from a STEM teacher, and one from a humanities teacher. Some colleges may specify the recommender’s grade level of instruction (i.e, It has to come from an 11th or 12th grade teacher). If a school does not specify a subject area or grade, you may submit recommendation letters from teachers of any subject. Be sure to check out the admissions pages of the websites for EACH college on your list to determine what their unique requirements are, if any.
Note that if applying to colleges through the Common Application, you can invite as many recommenders as you wish. Each teacher will receive an email from the Common Application website with instructions on how to upload their recommendation letters. From this “letter bank” you can select which letters are sent to individual schools. For instance, you might choose to submit letters from your Biology and Chemistry teachers to NYU, while for UPenn you’d prefer to send letters from your World History and English teachers.
Building strong relationships with a variety of teachers becomes very important when you are applying to schools with different areas of focus (or when your intended major differs between schools).
We’ll discuss relationship-building strategies in Part 2 of this post.
When considering which teachers to ask, we suggest focusing on your 11th grade teachers,
who know you in a more rigorous academic context than 9th or 10th grade teachers and can better reflect upon your ability to overcome challenges in the classroom setting. And because they’ve known you for at least a year, you’re more likely to have developed a stronger relationship with them than with your 12th grade teachers.
Aim to submit at least one recommendation from a teacher of a subject related to your intended major, in order to showcase your readiness for that field of study.
Keep in mind that this only applies if you did well in the class (at least a B, preferably an A). Otherwise, it’s a safer bet to ask a teacher in whose class you were more successful — even if that class applies less directly to your major. Let’s say you intend to apply to college as a Physics major, but received a C in your AP Physics class. However, you received an A in your AP Calculus AB class. In this case, consider asking your AP Calculus AB teacher: since calculus and physics are related subjects, your math teacher’s recommendation will still demonstrate your ability to navigate a key component of college-level physics.
While grades and major applicability are important factors in determining which teachers you should ask, it’s also important to think about your relationship with each teacher. You may have an A in AP Psychology, but rarely talk to the teacher. In this case, he or she will not be able to say much about you other than that you score well on your assessments. On the other hand, you may have a B in AP World History, but are much closer with that teacher. As a result, they’re likely to write more endearingly about you. In our opinion, the strength of the relationship is key, within reason (avoid asking any teacher in whose class you received less than a B, no matter how strong the relationship).
Teachers who double as the coach of your sport or the academic advisor of your club can be excellent options because they’ve observed you in different settings and are therefore familiar with multiple aspects of your personality and development. These teachers may be able to write a more memorable letter about you not just as a student but as a teammate, a captain, a club board member, etc.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of our discussion on letters of recommendation!