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Getting Letters Of Recommendation For Your College Apps

Stephen Friedfeld, Ph.D.
08/13/2012

Most students ask teachers to write a college letter of recommendation at the beginning of senior year. If your son or daughter already asked for a letter at the end of junior year, then he or she is ahead of the game! Teachers are very willing to write a positive letter, but the most popular teachers will typically be inundated with requests – so students should be sure to ask for a letter very early in the senior year.

For most selective colleges, your child will likely need two or three letters of recommendation. The guidance counselor will tackle the first letter – and then most often the remaining letter(s) will come from teachers. If a university requires X letters, then your child should submit, at most, X or X + 1 letters of recommendation. Too many letters can have a counter-effect and be viewed negatively by admissions officers.

How does your child pick the right teachers? Here are three tips:

1.    Be sure that the teacher knows your child well. Did your child actively participate in class? Will the teacher write positively and enthusiastically about your child, and speak of intellectual curiosity, maturity, growth, and potential for learning at the college level? Ideally, the teacher should also teach a subject related to what your child plans on studying in college.

2.    Look for teachers in grades 11 or 12, or teachers that your child had for more than one class. Teachers from the latter years of high school know your child more as a college-bound student than freshman- and sophomore-year teachers; teachers in grades 11 and 12 can extrapolate how your child will fare academically as a college freshman. Further, a teacher who had your child in two different years – say, grades 10 and 12 – is even better! That teacher should know your child very well and be able to advocate for him or her.

3.    Consider teachers that know your child outside of class. Perhaps the teacher was a club adviser or a coach. If so, he or she will have a better understanding and a different perspective of your child.

Teachers write letters of recommendation in addition to their other many responsibilities. Your son or daughter should provide an informal résumé to the teachers writing letters, including possible college majors, a list of colleges, and extracurricular and work experience so that the teacher can write a stronger letter to convey to colleges why your child should be admitted.

Want a fourth tip? Consider non-teachers for an extra letter of recommendation. Your son or daughter might consider a coach (for a team outside of school), a clergyperson, or a supervisor at his or her job.  The best letter of recommendation I ever read was from a deli supervisor – I learned about the student’s maturity, level of responsibility, dedication to his job, and ability to communicate with coworkers and customers. Non-teachers will provide a different perspective of your child, not to mention they likely will not have any other recommendation letters to write – so they can put a lot of time and effort into the letter.

A great letter can say a lot about your child – be thoughtful about who will write the most supportive letters!

(Stephen is the COO of AcceptU (www.AcceptU.com), a college admissions counseling group that connects applicants with former admissions officers. He has 10+ years of admissions experience at Cornell University and Princeton University. )

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