Who, When, and How to Ask for Recommendation Letters

College applications are your chance to show off all your years of hard work through transcripts, test scores, essays, and a resume. But there’s one important piece of the puzzle that you can’t complete on your own: recommendation letters.

Here at Vanguard, we’re firm believers in the power of a strong recommendation letter. When I received my own full-tuition scholarship as an undergraduate, my recommendation letters were a major deciding factor; I’ll never forget hearing the scholarship committee quote lines directly from my letters during both my interview and my award ceremony. From then on, I’ve known just how much weight a recommender’s words can hold.

So where to begin? First, you’ll need to know… 

Who to Ask:

Required Letters:
Most colleges require two letters from high school teachers and one from your high school counselor. Some schools require STEM teachers, Humanities teachers, or both, depending on your major. We typically recommend asking one STEM teacher and one Humanities teacher regardless of your major, as it’s the best way to show you’re well-rounded. 

Optional Letters:
Many colleges also allow you to submit anywhere from one to five “optional” letters, which can come from any non-relative (such as internship supervisors, research mentors, bosses, band directors, dance instructors, and other teachers). We encourage our students to take advantage of this option, as it will often help you stand out from the crowd more than letters from teachers or counselors, especially if your mentor can speak to a particularly meaningful or impressive extracurricular activity.

Keep it Personal:

The most important thing to keep in mind is this: choose recommenders who know you personally. A recommendation letter should add new information or layers to what’s already been revealed by the rest of your application. What matters to you? How do you treat others? How do you overcome challenges? What kind of a leader are you? 

For example, the teacher who tutored you after school to boost a suffering grade could write more about your drive and determination than the teacher whose class you aced without much effort. The basketball coach who’s known you since you were 12 could write more about your work ethic and personal growth than the retired NBA star who taught a 1-week camp you attended. And the mentor who supervised your research for a whole summer probably has more insight into your intellectual curiosity and career aspirations than the employee you shadowed at a big tech company for a single day. 

When to Ask:

Once you’ve chosen your potential recommenders, try to reach out and ask them as soon as possible, ideally by the end of 11th grade. Some teachers limit the number of letters they write in a single year,  so always ask early and have backup options. 

If you can, ask them in person and follow up via email. This way, if it slips their mind over the summer, you have the receipts and can gently remind them when the time comes. Always check in at the beginning of senior year to confirm that they’re still onboard!

How to Ask:

Let your recommenders know what you plan to major in and when your earliest college deadlines are going to be. However, keep in mind that you’ll be using the same letters for multiple colleges, so they don’t need to write separate ones for each.

Tell your recommender why you chose them, and give them a couple examples of relevant details you’d like for them to mention. This could include a paper you worked on for their class, an event you planned under their supervision, or an achievement you accomplished while working alongside them. Including these details is especially important if it’s been a year or longer since you interacted with them; they may need you to jog their memory!

Always send a thank-you note after a recommender has offered to write you a letter. This not only demonstrates your appreciation, but it also serves as a record of the agreement. When your acceptance letters start rolling in during the spring of Senior year, be sure to update your recommenders and thank them once more for playing a role in your journey! 

Recommendation letters can make or break your application; be sure to choose your recommenders wisely, and ask them early. A thoughtful letter from a recommender who knows you well will set you apart from thousands of other applicants and set you up for success!
To learn more about recommendation letters (and all the other components of your college application), check out our college counseling services here.

-Madison B.
College Counselor
Washington University St. Louis (Full Scholarship Recipient)

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