Rose Murphy: Fall checklist for seniors — The letter of recommendation
Letters of recommendation are an essential component of many college applications. Scholarships also often request recommenders. The purpose of the letter is to round out the application and provide insights into the student. The letter will paint a picture of how the student contributes to their high school campus. It will describe the student’s values, strengths, and skills, and if they’re a good fit for the campus or scholarship.
College applications are evaluated by admissions officers who are looking for both “hard” and “soft” factors. Hard factors, such as grades and test scores are straightforward, but soft factors are also essential. Admission officers hope to learn about the character of the student. The letter is only one part of the application, but it is a critical piece for describing the personal and academic profile of the applicant. Letters also provide valuable information about the student’s background or extenuating circumstances.
Think of this process as a strategy. It doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time and planning. So, let’s review the steps:
Read each college website’s requirements to see the number of recommendations you need. Colleges vary in their requirements. Some allow optional letters, others need none. Some colleges want letters from teachers of specific core academic subjects. It is important to review these requirements now and make sure you have support from the teachers you need. The same is true for scholarship applications.
High schools differ in how they expect students to request recommendations. Many high schools have a template for you to complete and provide to the teachers or counselors at your school. Check with your counselor to see if this is the case at your high school.
2. Request the letter
Gather letters from people who know you in different capacities; this will paint a fuller picture of you.
It is helpful to request a letter from a teacher who has taught you in higher-level classes during your junior or senior year. Find someone who knows you well and can expand on your academic strengths. Teachers can provide examples of your classroom contributions, such as work ethic and intellectual curiosity. Does the student have strong collaborative abilities? Is the student willing to take risks and show initiative?
A counselor will write more holistically, expressing who the student is within the school and community in which they live. Make an appointment with your counselor. Discuss your plans for the future. If you had a dip in grades or any challenges, describe to your counselor what you did to repair the grades or how you overcame your obstacle. Resiliency is a great “soft” skill that college admissions officers admire.
Besides academic teachers and counselors, letters from community members, such as a coach, employer, close family friend, or mentor, may be needed or optional. Here is where special talents and abilities are highlighted. Does the student have a commitment to service? A sense of responsibility? These folks can round out the letters to show how the student shines in areas outside the campus.
3. Ask your recommender personally
Teachers write many letters of recommendation on their own time after school hours. It is important to ask the teacher privately. You can say something like “I have enjoyed learning about chemistry in your class, I think you know me well. I am applying to college and was wondering if you could write a letter for me?” If they agree, let them know you appreciate it and promptly provide them with a resume or document to refresh their memory. Provide the recommender with the necessary deadlines and the materials they will need to write a comprehensive letter. The document should specifically address deadlines, the colleges you will apply to, instructions on how they will submit the letter, what you enjoy about their class and what programs or major you are thinking of.
4. When to ask
Letters should be requested at least six weeks in advance. Remind your recommender about a week prior to the deadline.
5. What not to do
Avoid sending more letters than allowed.
6. How to send
The majority of universities request that letters be submitted electronically by the recommender. They expect the letters to remain confidential. Many times, the student will need to sign a waiver, stating that they waive their right to read the letters that were written. If using the Common Application, this will need to be done before any invitations can be emailed to recommenders.
7. Thank your recommenders
Don’t forget to write a thank you note to the recommender!
Taking the time to plan and prepare for your letter of recommendations will ensure that you will have what you need to round out your application and highlight your amazing strengths and strong character.
Rose Murphy is a retired high school counselor, working as an independent educational consultant. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or her website at abestfitcollege.com.
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