AO Advice: Securing Strong College Recommendation Letters
Recommendation letters are an important part of the application. Get tips and tricks on how to secure a strong letter with CollegeAdvisor.com.
Former Admissions Officer Aaron Brown will share his insider knowledge on everything you need to know during a 60-minute webinar and Q&A session.
In this webinar, you’ll have all your questions answered, including:
- Who should I ask?
- How many do I need?
- What should I provide to them?
Come ready to learn and bring your questions!
2022-10-20 – AO Advice: Securing Strong College Recommendation Letters
Hi everyone. Welcome to CollegeAdvisor’s webinar on Admissions Officer’s Advice: Securing Strong College Recommendation Letters. I’m McKenzie and I’ll be your moderator tonight. So if you have any tech issues, you can message me and I’ll be putting some additional information in the public chat. But, um, to orient everyone with the webinar attending, we’ll start up with a presentation, then answer your questions in a live Q&A on the sidebar.
You can download our slides and you can start to many your questions in the Q&A tab. Now let’s meet our panelists.
Good evening. Thank you McKenzie. Uh, my name is Aaron Brown and I am a former admission officer. So I worked first at USC, the University of Southern California, uh, which is my alma mater and was in admissions there for 12 years, uh, which seems crazy to say now, um, where I basically. I started as an admission counselor, recruiting students, visiting high schools, and then left, um, essentially managing the application evaluation process.
So was working with, um, all of our staff on reading applications, getting through the volume of applications we had, but importantly teaching them how to read applications, which, uh, is, is partially why I’m here speaking with you this evening. Then I left and went to University of California system to get some experience on the public sector, um, and worked at UC San Diego for two years where I was running their application evaluation process.
There were both first year and, uh, transfer admits where I, I didn’t have as much, uh, contact with letters of recommendation. Um, but now I’ve actually switched sides of the desk again, and at my high school guidance counselor. So working with students and families like you, um, to go through this, this process and, and help you navigate what can be a, a challenging but also very exciting time.
Um, and now I’m on the other side where I get to write the letters of recommendation, um, which is a whole different side of stress, but excited to talk to you about it tonight. That is awesome. I’m actually studying to become a school counselor. Uh, but, uh, just to start, everyone also, what grade are you currently in?
Eighth, 19th, 11th. 12th or other. And other can be if you’re a transfer student or if you’re taking a gap year. And while we wait for those, um, responses to roll in, Aaron, can you tell us about how many letters of recommendation do students typically need? So I think a good baseline is a total of three. So it would be one from your college counselor or your guidance counselor, so someone like me.
Uh, and then two from teachers. Uh, and that’s gonna be a pretty good space. Most schools at this point require something from your counselor, kind of the secondary school report, and often a counselor letter, although it’s not always required. Um, and then at least one teacher letter of recommendation as well.
So some schools cap it at one, some say one’s required, but two or three are accepted, et cetera. But a good rule of thumb is typically your counselor and then two teachers. Mm-hmm. . So it’s looking like we actually have a hundred percent juniors, and you can control the slides. Great. All right. So what are letters of recommendation?
What exactly is their purpose in the admission process? And like every component of the application, the point is just to get to know a little bit more about you. Right. The application is the vehicle that we have to learn about you and. What you contribute, what’s you’re like in and out of the classroom as we imagine how you might contribute in and out of the classrooms at our college or university.
Uh, and so from the teacher letter of reference, what we’re really looking at there is to understand what you contribute in the classroom context. Are you the person who’s always raising your hand? Uh, maybe the person who is a little bit more shy, right? Takes some time to engage in that classroom discussion.
But when you do, it’s always that really effective. Excuse me, that moves the discussion forward. Uh, maybe your oral presentations set the standard for the class. You’re the one that everyone goes to seeking guidance on, particularly challenging homework assignments, you know, those kinds of things.
Insights about you as a student. Whereas the counselor letter is a bit different. It’s talking a bit more broadly about what you’re like in the school context, in the community, right. What’s the impact that you’ve made when you leave? Is that school gonna fall apart because you were so involved in so many different things?
Um, what’s the rigor of your curriculum vis-a-vis the opportunities that are available to you at that high school? That context piece is really key. Also, that can be a space either in your teacher, but often your counselor letters to highlight anything that, you know, might kind of, um, be something that admission officer might have a question about.
Right? So, was there a dip in your grades? Why? Was there an upward trend? Why? Right. You know? Was there a particular challenge that you faced that you’ve had to overcome? Those kinds of things? Like if you aren’t comfortable talking about it on your own, or you wanna be sure that that is also mentioned elsewhere.
Letters of recommendation are a great place to do that because that context is really critical. Right. And admission officer. Needs to know as much about you as possible to really make that informed decision on your candidacy, on your application. And so the kind of understanding that we get about you from someone other than yourself, uh, and the letter of recommendation is really useful to us when we’re making a decision.
And of course, it is a thing that’s required at most of the schools to which you’ll be applying. Um, so pretty much all private institutions will require letters of recommendation. And at this point, many of the kind of big flag, uh, flagship public schools require letters of recommendation as well. So places like Georgia Tech, Michigan, North Carolina, um, but obviously, of course there are plenty of schools that don’t.
And so if you’re applying to systems that don’t need letters of recommendation, then you’re, you’re off the hook there. So kind of like University of California system, right where I used to work, they don’t require letters of recommendation, um, cuz they’ve got enough to read already in, in that application process.
So why are they important? I think it, it’s important to remember that in admissions, we as admission officers do this work on behalf of the faculty, and I think are very kind of cognizant of that, uh, and take that kind of responsibility seriously, right? I mean, admissions as a profession really didn’t exist until about the turn of the last century.
All this work was done by faculty, right? Because ultimately they were admitting the students that they wanted to turn around and teach. But then it got to the point that application volumes kept going up and up and up, and faculty no longer had the time to teach and do research and do all the things that they needed to do, right?
So in essence, they outsource that work and admissions was created. And so we kind of really take that responsibility seriously and continue to think. About, Okay, well who do the faculty want to have in their classrooms? When I was running the, the process at USC in our reader training, we would always hear from faculty because that was really important to us to understand what are the kinds of values and perspectives that you want to have your students bring?
What are the kinds of things we should be looking out for? Specific traits and things like that, right? And so we want to know, well, what do you like in the classrooms in high school? Cuz that’s usually a pretty good indicator of what you’re gonna be like in the classroom, in college, right? And so we wanna see again, how you contribute in that academic setting.
Whereas the counselor letter again, speaks a little bit more broadly about impact. So of course you’re gonna talk about your extracurricular activities and in the common app, but guess what? You don’t have a lot of space to do that, right? You’re only a few hundred characters, um, to indicate the impact in your activities.
And if you’re not writing your essay about it, cause you’re writing about something else, well someone else can help you by talking about the impact that you’ve made. And so that’s where the counselor letter can really talk about the activities that you’ve done in or out of school. Um, again, insight into rigor because that’s really critically important.
Admission officers want to understand all about your academic preparation, grades and standardized test scores. If they’re required or submitted, they only tell us so much, right? If I look at a transcript and I see a bunch of A’s, Okay, great, like I can make some assumptions about you, uh, in terms of, you probably study for tests and you know, you turn in your homework on time cuz you’ve got good grades.
But beyond that, how do you engage with the material and your other students? Uh, those are the kinds of insights that we get from teachers, from counselors that we really aren’t able to get anywhere else. Right. Um, and so it’s really kind of a critical piece of the application overall. And again, it’s also a great place to explain something that might cause the reader to raise their eyebrow.
Um, so any time that you think there’s something in your, in your record that perhaps could be explained, the council letter, if you have that conversation with them, can be a great opportunity to explain that.
So who should you ask? Most importantly, it’s someone who knows you best. . That’s really the most important thing, right? Often this is gonna be a teacher from your junior year, because the senior year teacher, by the time the applications are due, if you’re applying somewhere, early decision or early action November.
I’ve only been able to interact with you in the classroom for two months at most. You know, if your school started in, in mid-August, so often it’s gonna be a junior year teacher because they had that entire year to really get to know you often junior years, and when you start to take some of your more rigorous courses if you haven’t already, your AP, your IB, those kinds of things.
And so they can provide some pretty great insight into how you’re doing in, in those kinds of courses. It’s also important to, to think about, you know, again, who might provide some unique insight about you as a student. It may not be the course in which you received at the highest grade, because maybe that grade is a class that just comes easy to you.
You show up, you put in a minimal amount of effort because it’s just something that comes naturally to you and you get a good grade. Cool. But like, is that actually gonna be a really great letter? Because they’re just gonna write Yeah. The student, you know, they just kind of clearly they get the material, they’re really bright and they love this subject.
But beyond that, there’s not much that they can necessarily add. Sometimes a course in which you’ve had to kind of really work hard, put in effort, maybe some, some struggle. You got knocked down at the beginning of the class, but then you turned around and picked it up. That can actually be a much more beneficial letter than one where you just kind of coasted through the whole time, right?
So think about that. You definitely want to, if you can avoid teachers from ninth and 10th grade, you may still have a great relationship with them, and that’s awesome. Um, but ultimately we wanna understand kind of how your performance has been in courses that are recent, right? Uh, because you’re applying to college in 12th grade, not in ninth grade.
And so I want to know what you’re like as a student now. It can be helpful too, if you get letter, uh, letter of recommendation from. A teacher in a field related to what you wanna study doesn’t have to be the case. So don’t feel obligated to do this if you feel you don’t have a relationship that, uh, you know, works with one of those teachers.
But say you’re applying to engineering, it might be a good idea to have. At, uh, one of your math teachers, one of your science teachers write a letter of recommendation for you. But then on the other hand, you know, you don’t necessarily need to have both chemistry and physics, right? Teacher, uh, recommendation letters for you.
Maybe your English teacher can provide a different perspective or history or economics or something like that, right? So maybe one related to your field of study, uh, an area that you’re really passionate and excited about, and the teacher shares that passion and excitement and you can really kind of talk about that, that would be great.
Um, but then another could provide a different perspective, right? Because ultimately, again, you’re trying to get as broad of a picture about who you are as possible so that the admission officer can learn all these different components of you in the 12 to 15 minutes. So they’re reading their application, um, to make that informed decision.
And then the last thing is that there’s this kind of idea. English teachers write the best recommendation letters because you know English teacher as well. Yeah. Like they teach you how to write so clearly they write good ones too. Sure. Sometimes . Um, but, you know, don’t forget your math teacher or just because it doesn’t just have to be your English teacher.
Anyone with whom you have a really close relationship and can speak to who you’re like in the classroom. As long as they can just write some quick anecdotes about you. Right. And kind of give us examples of, of how you contribute. It’s gonna be a useful letter. It doesn’t have to be full of flowery pros and beautiful.
It’s, it’s like honestly, a lot of counselor recommended, uh, recommendation letters now or in bullet points, which is totally fine too. Um, so go to someone who knows you best, not necessarily who you think is going to write the prettiest letter
So how do you build a relationship to get. That awesome teacher or counselor letter recommendation. So first, with the teachers, you really engage in the classroom. You wanna raise your hand, ask questions, participate, don’t just show up and sit in the back and do your work and leave, because then the teacher can’t contribute much more beyond the fact that, you know, Johnny shows up and does his work and leaves.
Um, which ultimately is not gonna add much new insight, any sort of, you know, additional value add to your application, right? Um, so find ways to participate, find ways to bring your other interests into the classroom, right? Um, kind of, I would imagine that there’s lots of ways where you understand that, oh, this thing that I just learned over here in this class actually really relates to what we just discussed in this.
I think there’s a really interesting kind of dialogue and kind of talk about that, show your interdisciplinary kind of engagement with subject matter or with things that you’re interested in outside of class. If it relates, um, teachers, much like professors in college, right? Like they’re teaching a particular subject often because they like it, they’re excited about it.
So when a student shares a similar. They’re excited about that and, and someone else who is, you know, deeply passionate about a, a subject like they are. Um, and so when you are able to kind of show them that you have that interest in a particular subject, they’re gonna really kind of, uh, be excited about that.
And, and that can be a kind of a basis for forming that relationship. Maybe you wanna stick around after class and ask a question, right? So you don’t wanna take over the class, You don’t wanna make it just about you. The teacher ultimately does have to get through the material and move forward through things.
Um, but you know, again, maybe you kind of carrying on that conversation, you know, like, Oh, you know, I was, I was thinking about what we discussed today and related to this, and what do you think? And asking kind of those probing questions. Um, it also can be an option where, you know, maybe you have a teacher who is an advisor for one of your clubs.
Um, one of your extracurricular activities, perhaps a coach from one of your athletic teams. So that can be an opportunity where a teacher can yes, talk about what you’re like in the classroom, but also can talk about what you perhaps contribute on the field or, you know, with m u n or debate or, you know, whatever it is, kind of a thing, right?
Um, and then with the counselor, it kind of depends, you know, on, on what your school does, um, on the caseload for that person and kind of the time that they have. Um, but you know, if they’re not in your junior year kind of proactively reaching out, And kind of establishing those sort of connections that might be a time for you, um, at some point in your junior year to, you know, reach out to them, um, with an email or walk into their office and say, I’m thinking about applying to, to college, and I’d like to start to have a conversation with you, um, so that we can get to know each other, uh, and kind of use their knowledge, um, so that they can help kind of point you perhaps in the right path when it comes to choosing schools and things like that.
But also it’s the basis for that relationship where you start that kind of thing. Right. So the times where I have students come into my office to talk about their schools, well, I’m also asking questions about, you know, what they like and what they’re interested in and what, and we go off in tangents and you end up talking about other things that you can end up bringing into a reference letter.
But sometimes you might need to, depending upon the school or the space, make that first step, uh, in terms of reaching out to them and starting that sort of discussion or that dialogue.
In terms of timeline, that’s definitely something that’s important. Um, essentially the best advice is the earlier, the better. Um, you do not wanna wait until the week before the deadline and be like, Oh, right, I think I need a recommendation letter. And then you walk into their classroom and ask for a reference letter that’s due in a week.
Uh, that’s not a way to endear you to teachers. I can promise you that. Um, honestly, the best time is is near the end of, of your junior year, right? So at that point, you have your kind of entire junior year completed. You’ve gotten to know teachers by that time, you know, classes in which you felt that you’ve really engaged, that you’ve made an impact, that you’ve had those kind of, you know, real discussions.
Um, so, you know, I’d say as class ends your junior year, because this gives teachers time if they want to, to work on them over the summer. Uh, when they have some time, which yes, sometimes they would just prefer to complete disengage and that’s totally fine, right? That’s their choice. But other times they might want to get some work done over the summer when they’re not worrying about lesson plans and everything else that they have to do as part of their day to day activity as a teacher and writing a bunch of recommendation letters, especially some of the more popular teachers, they might get to a place where if you’re asking them in October of senior year, they’re like, Well, I already have 15.
I don’t have time to do this. I’m really sorry. I can’t do it. Right. So you wanna kind of get in on that list early, but not too early. It doesn’t need to be January, it doesn’t need to be now, uh, if you’re a junior, right? Um, if kind of your plans change, if you were applying to schools that didn’t require reference letters and.
You are. Or if a teacher leaves or there’s something like that, well, that’s totally fine to do it right when school starts your senior year. But again, you don’t wanna wait too long into senior year because it is possible that the teacher might say no, um, because, you know, essentially they’re, they’re doing this because they like you, , uh, they wanna help you.
Um, but you know, they may not be required to do it, and, and ultimately they may not have the time to do it. So asking early is definitely the way to go.
How can you ask? Pretty easy. Just ask, um, you know, a nice, polite in-person. Ask after class is usually best. You know, go in and you know, Mr. Or Mrs. So-and-so, you know, I thought I’ve really enjoyed your class and we had a, a lot of great engagement over the course of the year. You know, as I think about applying to schools next year, I think you could really provide some unique insight, uh, to really contribute towards my application.
Would you mind writing a letter of reference for me? Um, and, you know, they may agree right on the spot. Um, may say, Yeah, I think so. You know, I need to make sure what my time looks like. Possible they say no is unlikely, but you know, sometimes they might, um, which you could, you know, be prepared for. But if you’ve done your research and, and kind of figured out who might, may be best to ask, hopefully that doesn’t happen for you.
And then promise to follow up with an email just confirming that discussion that you’ve had. And then also to provide them with some relevant material that might help, uh, as they write the letter. I would say you definitely don’t want to just send an email, um, that’s just not quite, you know, very personal.
Um, because, because it’s a fairly big ask, right? And so you want to kind of come up and acknowledge that. And so to that last point there, you don’t wanna also approach the conversation from the perspective that it’s a hundred percent a given either, right? Um, to be respectful again of the time that they’re going to have to take to write this for you.
Um, So don’t, Yeah. So like, you’re gonna write a letter for me, Right. Or something like that. Um, more just like, I really think that you have some, you know, unique values to add to my application. I would love if you could do this for me. Thanks so much. I know this is an ask on your time. Right? Like that kind of a thing.
Just, just be polite. Um, and usually they’ll, they’ll be happy to help and to accommodate that.
Yes. So now we’re gonna do another quick pulse. So have you started reaching out to potential recommenders? Uh, so, uh, yes I have, and yes, and I have confirmed with some, yes, but I have not confirmed with any yet. No, but I have some people in mind, or no, I, and I don’t have anyone in mind. And while we wait for that, Aaron, can you tell us when should students start asking for letters or rec?
You touched on it a bit, but, um, yeah, end of junior year is definitely the best time, right? So I would say, you know, May or June. Um, kind of right before you head off for summer break, uh, of your junior year. Definitely. Uh, so it’s looking like we have, uh, 50% have, um, confirmed with some and then 50%, um, have not yet reached out, but have some people in mind.
Yeah. And so if you’re in a junior year now that totally makes sense, right? So you definitely don’t wanna do it too early, but I think at this point, a couple months into the school year, you might have a sense of, of teachers you particularly engage with, um, and ones where you have a bit of a connection that by the end of the year and you know, it’s entirely possible, they might come to you and say, Hey, this has been a really great year.
I’d love to write a letter of recommendation for you. I, I definitely know of instances where that’s happened before too. Definitely. And you can control the sides.
So what should you give to your teacher if. They have agreed to write a letter of recommendation for you. Um, so first is to understand that the teacher letter and the counselor letter, as I kind of mentioned at the beginning of the presentation, really do serve different purposes. And so you want to give them different things to make sure that ultimately they’re adding as much value as possible, that each component of the application is being used to its fullest extent and that you’re not kind of replicating information that’s going to be found elsewhere, right?
That a reader doesn’t need to read necessarily the same thing about you three times across letters, but that’s an opportunity that’s been missed to add a different perspective from you or about you in each of the different letters, right? So with teachers, they might ask, but typically I would try to say avoid giving them a resume cuz it’s really not their job and a teacher letter.
To talk about your extracurricular activities, right? Unless they oversee you as an advisor with a club, an extracurricular activity, or if they, they coach you with a, a sports team, then sure, yes, they can say, in addition to how I see this person in the classroom, I also see the work that they put in, you know, on the baseball field and the way they interact with their teammates.
Great. Sure. Because they have firsthand knowledge of that. But if it’s just they’re on M mu n they’re captain of the debate team. Well great. You’re gonna say that already in your application. Right? And perhaps that’s gonna be in a different letter. So it doesn’t need to be said there. They should really be focusing on what do you like in the classroom?
What did you contribute in the classroom context so you can help them with that, right? Cause they probably have a good idea, but maybe you can kind of jog their memory or provide them with some kind of things to think about. So maybe write a document. With some specific anecdotes from the course, what did you most enjoy about it?
Was there a particular assignment that you were really proud of? Like the work that you put in and the grade that you got back and the feedback, you’re like, Hey, remember that assignment that I did and how awesome you said it was. Talk about that. Um, what was your most significant contribution to the class?
Um, those kinds of things that, again, the teacher may remember, but it’s helpful to kind of put it down in writing from your words, and that that can kind of initiate a bit of a dialogue back and forth. Um, with your, your teacher there. For the counselors, this is where you want to give them a resume because it is their job to talk more about broadly who you are in terms of the activities that you’ve done and the things that you’ve been involved with.
Um, but beyond that, it’s helpful to not just give them a resume because again, they don’t wanna necessarily simply restate your activities because. You’re putting them in the common app already. Um, but again, some of those bigger picture, uh, bigger picture questions. Yeah, you were on M un, but what did you really do with that?
What are you most proud of during your time in school? What’s your greatest achievement, Ben? Something that you look back on, you reflect on, like can you really kind of hone in on this point? I think this was something I really wanna kind of make sure the admission officers know about me. Were there any particular challenges you faced, you know, over the course of your time in high school?
Um, and if you’re comfortable sharing that with them and having that discussion, even if it, you know, is a perhaps painful topic, that can be a place where they can really, again, put your record into context. Right. Um, you know, one of my students this. Had a parent who, who passed away, um, over the summer. Uh, and so that context in terms of how it informed, you know, uh, that student’s return to school senior year is important to know.
Right? And so if, if the student may not feel comfortable talking about it or if it doesn’t, he doesn’t wanna write his whole essay about it, he’s got other things he wants to talk about. The counselor letter can be a point to kind of talk about that and again, provide that context. So I would say documents both for teachers and for counselors really do provide some, some great insight there.
Um, beyond just kind of giving them a list of, of qualifications or a transcript or, or things like that.
So how big of a process or a part do they play role? Do they play in the emission process? At the end of the day, they’re important. . Yes, absolutely. Will they make or break your application? Will they, will they be the reason that you’re admitted? Not necessarily, no. Um, you know, take it seriously. Make sure that you give your teacher and your counselor the content that they need to write a successful letter.
Ask early, all of that. But often what it does is reaffirm kind of how you were already thinking as an admissions officer, right? So when you’re reading an application, you’re kind of getting a particular feeling of a student, and then the letters, you’re like, Yep, that’s kind of exactly what I was seeing already.
Occasionally it points you in a different direction. You’re like, Oh, okay. I hadn’t considered that the contextual piece, right? Like, Oh, well that really explains this now. Okay. I think that I’m gonna have to kind of reevaluate how I initially perceive this student, right? So they can definitely help. In that contextual piece, they are not ever going to hurt you.
Right? And so sometimes there’s this fear that like, well, are they good enough? It’s necessary. It might be an opportunity that’s missed, but they’re never gonna detract from your application. Uh, provided of course that you don’t ask a teacher that like really doesn’t like you, but they should have the professional courtesy to say, No, if, if you ask.
And that’s the case. Uh, in my 14 years of admissions, I think I only saw one or two letters out of the tens of thousands that I read where that would be the case. Um, but you know, I’d say again, it is, it basically is neutral or, or a benefit to you ultimately. They really provide important context as we consider how you engage in the classroom, the impact that you make in your school or in your community.
Um, and often this is a good place for admission officers to learn about your character, your values. Right. Um, from a perspective other than yours, like, yes, you might talk about that in your essay. Um, but how do you interact with other students and other people, Um, the respect that you afford teachers, things like that.
Who you are as a person, most of the schools to which you’re applying, who really carefully consider that as a recommendation. Their residential communities, meaning that you are living and learning and studying on campus or around campus, probably for most of your four years. And so for them, character really matters.
They want to understand who are we admitting to this community? Uh, and so kind of hearing from the adults in your life can really help them to understand that. So they are important there in that regard. And then I wanna show you the results from a survey from, uh, NACAC, which is the National Association of College Admission Counseling.
Which is an organization made up of college admission officers. So I was on it when I was on that side, and you can stay in it when you’re on this side. It’s also made up of high school counselors and independent consultants and, and folks like that who are kind of navigating this space of the journey from secondary to post-secondary education.
And every year they put out a survey to admission officers to ask them to kind of rank or talk about how heavily they weigh different components of the application. And so here on this slide, and I apologize, it’s a bit, um, kind of, you gotta really zoom in, uh, to take a look at it there, but you can see kind of.
It’s ranked in descending order of kind of what they give considerable importance to, right? So you can see you have considerable importance, moderate, limited, or none. And of course they asked a wide variety of institutions, so it might make sense that they have different institutional needs and different ways that they read applications.
But you can see that the counselor reference and the teacher reference are right there in the middle, um, deemed as more important than class rank. Um, are viewed as considerably important more often than extracurricular activities. Um, and interview work experience, right? So all that to say, you can see that these are going to be an important part of your application.
So not something you wanna skip over, not something you wanna leave to the last minute. Um, so you know, if you do the things that we’ve discussed here tonight, You’ll get good reference letters that will add value to your application. Um, and, and ultimately help to paint the picture of, of who you are and whether or not you’ll be a good fit for that particular institution.
So any sort of last tips? Um, I did hear from students when I was on the admission side. Often if they did go to kind of larger public schools where the counseling caseloads were through the roof, right? Hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of students, and they’re like, Counselor doesn’t know me. Um, that’s okay, right?
They’ll submit your transcript, they’ll submit the form that they need to submit, and they might just write a letter that says, Look, with my caseload, I can’t really recommend this. Student admission offices know that again, they read by context. So they know for some schools, they’re really not gonna get a great counselor letter.
So instead they turn and look really closely at a teacher reference letter, right? And so they kind of weigh it in a different way than perhaps they might have. And so don’t worry about that. Really focus on the relationships that you have with your teachers and they’re gonna be great advocates for you in the process.
And the admission office will absolutely understand that. Ask early. Um, make sure that you do that before you go on summer break at the end of your junior year, and really show teachers who you are, engage with the material, make connections, show them your intellectual interests. Um, because ultimately colleges are admitting students, uh, to come and be intellectually engaged in their classrooms, right?
And they wanna see that you’ve done that in high school. So really engage and get excited about the material. Um, and that’s gonna lead to great reference letters.
Yes. So that is the end of the presentation part of the webinar. I hope you found this information helpful. And remember that you can download the slide from the link in the handouts tab. And this webinar is being recorded if you would like to view it again later on our [email protected]
Moving on to the live Q&A. I’ll read your questions you submitted in the Q&A tab and read them aloud, uh, before our panelist gives you an answer. As a heads up, if your Q&A tab isn’t letting you submit questions, just make sure that you join the webinar through the custom links sent to your email and not from the website or else you won’t get all the features of BigMarker.
Uh, so again, just make sure you join through that custom link now on the Q&A. So just to start us off, um, what a student is asking, what’s the most important content to have included in letter in a letter of recommendation? More specifically, what would be considered a good letter of recommendation?
Um, A good letter is one where the teacher clearly knows you, right? And, and often when they can provide specific anecdotes and insights, right? Um, so much like the admission officers will tell you in your, when, when you ask for advice about writing your personal statement, where it’s not just say like, you know, and blah, blah, blah, I am a go-getter.
Okay? Give me an example of that, right? So if a teacher can really provide examples of the statements that they are kind of asserting about you, those specific kind of relevant examples and anecdotes really add value, um, as we kind of think about, again, who you are as a student and what you’re going to add to the classroom.
So, um, that’s, we’re giving them a document. Where if you provide some of those examples that you might remember, that can be helpful, right? To jog their memory or perhaps kind of add to things that they might already have stored up about you. Um, but definitely the most important content is just like, what do you like in the classroom?
How do you engage with the material with others? Um, and what do you like as a student? That’s what they’re looking for in a teacher reference. Yes. I remember my senior year I asked my theory of knowledge teacher, which is like a philosophy class for IB students. And uh, in the email I sent him along with asking him in person, I just explained like I was a team lead, uh, in our little group discussions.
And I explained how I did on our Theory of knowledge project and our essay in that class and how it, um, would benefit me when I’m in college and how it related to my major. Um, yeah, any of you are IB students? Do K teachers are a great, great reference Ask. That was my favorite teacher and, well, one of my favorite teachers, but my favorite class for sure,
Um, and it’s, uh, going on to the next question. This one is sort of a controversial thing. Uh, I know a teacher that would do this at my school. So, um, some teachers will ask or tell students like to write the letter themselves and then they’ll just sign off on it. Uh, so the question is, should you ghost write your letters for those you are getting recommendations.
no . Um, we really would appreciate that if you didn’t. Right? I mean, because it’s, it’s ultimately not really being truthful. I mean yeah, in some sense they’re ultimately agreeing to what you’ve written. Um, but we want to get their opinion, um, without you having written it for them. Right. Um, that kind of unique perspective that they’re going to provide.
Um, often you, you wave your rights to view these when you create your common app account and forward the formal requests to them through whichever platform your school is using. And again, not so that means that they can say things about you that aren’t nice, but they can write with a different lens.
Right? Um, and if you’re writing it for them, it really kind of, it doesn’t give us that same as an admission officer, that same kind of opinion and insight that we might like to have seen. Mm-hmm. . And yes, um, you do waive your rights through the FERPA agreement. And when you’re actually on the common app, you’ll be able to see that on the platform when you’re on your individual school’s applications.
And then it’ll, uh, have a little blurb about, um, waiving your FERPA rights. What that means, it basically just means that you have not seen your letter of recommendation, like you didn’t get to read over it. Um, and that, uh, you’re waiving your rights to see it. Uh, and it’s just what they do to make sure that it’s confidential, essentially.
Um, so, yeah. Uh, going on to the, kind of going off of that, do you, uh, do you send in your, uh, rec letter or does the recommender do that? And how exactly, um, is it sent? Yeah, It, it depends on your high school. Um, but typically they’re going to be uploaded electronically, um, either by the counselor or by the teacher themselves.
Um, so you’ll want to talk with. Your guidance counselor about kind of what their preferred method is. There’s a variety of different kind of proprietary platforms that counseling offices use to manage the process. Naviance is a big one. Score is a big one. Um, those kinds of things. Sometimes um, schools don’t have that cuz you have to pay for that and it’s a lot of money.
Um, and so oftentimes universities and colleges will have platforms where schools can just upload it directly into a portal. Um, MIT and Georgetown as examples have their own kind of unique process outside of the Common App. And so they have a portal where a teacher or a counselor uploads the documents themselves.
Um, slate.org, which is a system that most schools use to read applications also is a way that they kind of create their portals and they have a new, a new-ish feature where teachers and counselors kind of upload. Directly to the portal through Slate. So there’s lots of different ways for that to happen, but ultimately that will be done by the teacher or by the counselor, so that it maintains that sort of confidentiality.
Right? So it’s not like they’re giving it to you and then you upload it. Um, They will upload it themselves, although it is still possible. I mean, at USC I remember we still got, you know, thousands and thousands of letters in the actual snail mail. So that does still work. Um, that is an option. But most are uploaded electronically.
Yes. And uh, again, through the common app, um, there’s gonna be the My colleges section, and then for each individual school it’ll have the letter of recommendation section. It makes more sense when you’re actually looking at the platform, um, since most people use Common App. And then so you’ll go down to that section and then you’ll wave your FERPA rights and then you add in the name of your teacher, um, and your counselor also.
Um, I don’t think you add what subject they taught, but you add in their email and then um, you click send and it’ll send them the document and page to fill out their side of the application. Uh, going off of that, you mentioned some of the information students should be giving to their recommended.
Recommenders, um, when asking, um, should you also tell your recommender or counselor the deadlines for when you’re applying? Yeah, , that’s, that’s a big one, uh, that I should have mentioned. Yes. Um, it’s very important that you tell them the deadline. Um, so we say, Hey, I’m applying early decision in early action, so it’s due November 1st, or I’m applying regular decision to all of my schools, so it’s due in January.
Um, again, some platforms like Naviance, et cetera, will tell the, um, teacher or counselor that automatically, because if you’ve linked your common app to that, to that site, if your school uses it and uploads that automatically and kind of tells the teacher on your behalf. But it’s definitely helpful if you can tell them, Hey, November 1st.
Um, that would be great, you know, Thank you so much. Yes. Deadlines would be very helpful. Yes. And going off of that, if someone is applying ED or EA, um, how soon should they be asking for our recommendation letters? Um, yeah, I think if you stick to that timeline and ask at the end of your junior year, that’s still more than sufficient time, um, to do it for EA or Ed.
If you, you haven’t asked a teacher yet and you’re applying EA ED in your senior year, it’s definitely gotta be as soon as you get to school, um, your senior year because those deadlines come up real quick. . Yes. Uh, again, going off of that, uh, will your application be overlooked if your recommender does not turn in their letter on time?
And will a late submission affect your chances of getting it to the school? Yeah, that’s a great question. Um, I guess in some ways the always unhelpful admission officer answer is, it depends, um, which you will hear from so many admission officers in so many contacts. But broadly, no, it’s not gonna hurt you.
they know that, you know, things happen. Systems crash, people forget, stuff goes on. You know, there’s crises that schools have to deal with all the time, right? Uh, and so if, if your letters supporting documentation, transcripts, you know, all those kinds of things trickle in a few days after the deadline, not a problem.
As long as you click submit on the common app or whichever application platform you’re using by the deadline, you’re considered on time. Um, and so yeah, sure, we might need to wait until everything comes in before we can read the application. But generally admission offices are not gonna penalize you for something you really don’t have control over, right?
So as long as it gets there within a few days or a week, not an. Uh, that was an issue I had my senior year from my TOK teacher. Uh, he was a little bit late on submitting my application and I really was not sure how to like nudge him. So, going off of that, how do you nudge a recommender if they are procrastinating or late on submitting your, uh, recommendation letter?
You know, I, I think it’s totally fair. Again, you can unsee through again these various platforms, Slate, gans, common app, et cetera. If the teacher has submitted it already, um, or the counselor, and it’s about this time of year where some of my students in my current position are, are coming to me, Mr. Brown, I see that Mr.
So-and-So hasn’t submitted his letter. Like, should I be worried? And it’s like, Nope, no, it’s okay. Like we we’re talking about it, it it’s coming. Um, but you know, I, I think a week or two before the deadline, a nice reminder email. Right, that says, Thank you again so much for agreeing to write for me. Just wanted to send a quick reminder that it’s, you know, I’m applying ED, I’m really excited about this school student member First.
Thanks again for your help, right? So not just like, Hey, where is this? But thanks again for doing this. Nicely. Remind, here’s the deadline, and if it’s not up by the deadline, then I think you can go and ask and say, Hey, like the deadline was yesterday, hasn’t been submitted. Is everything okay? Um, is there anything I can help you with?
You know, again, it’s really important to me. What can we do to get this in that kind of. Mm. And, um, we know that the admissions process is overwhelming for parents and students alike, especially when trying to figure out how to get these recommendation letters, uh, figuring out who to ask how to build the best application possible.
And our team of over 300 former admissions officers, such as Aaron and admissions experts, are ready to help you and your family navigate it on one-on-one advising sessions. Take charge of your family’s college admissions journey by signing up for a free strategy session with an admissions expert by scanning the QR code on the screen, and it’ll take you to an additional application to fill out.
Um, in this meeting, you can find out more about our packages and what we offer here at CollegeAdvisor. I would say the best part about CollegeAdvisor is that you really get an advisor who gets to know you throughout the admissions process, especially if you sign up in your junior year. Um, they really get to know you throughout the year and, um, figure out what your needs and your interests are.
Figure out who your teachers are. They can, um, Help, uh, sort of keep, I know with my students, I keep them on track with like when to ask for letters of recommendation, um, figuring out how to draft the email, um, and what to say to their teachers. So that’s very helpful. And then also with one of my students, um, her counselor was being a bit harder, I don’t know why.
Um, on recommendation letters saying that she needed to submit her applications by November in order to get a recommendation letter, uh, which was a bit hard and concerning for my students. So as her advisor, I was able to email the counselor and explain the situation. And so I was able to provide that sort of additional support and maybe a little bit more muscle behind.
Uh, if you are. Supports at your school, maybe not be as supportive. Um, but yes, that your advisor can really help with figuring out how to make your application the strongest possible to really help getting you into these dream schools, figuring out if early decision is gonna be a good place for you. So we highly recommend, uh, scanning the QR code on the screen to find out more information.
Uh, but now back to the Q&A. Uh, so one, uh, another student’s asking how personal does, uh, your recommendation letter need to be for it to be impactful? I mean, ideally pretty personal, right? Um, I, you shouldn’t be able to pull out your name, put in someone who sits next to you in class and have it still make sense, right?
Hmm. Because ones that are unique to you are the ones that add the most value, right? Uh, and so that’s what, kind of having that conversation with a teacher can be really helpful, providing them with specific anecdotes and stories after you ask. Um, maybe even if you wanna sit down, uh, if they have the time and have a conversation with them, um, you know, and not say, Write about this, write about this, write about this.
But, you know, kind of again, talk about, Hey, remember this time that we did this in class and you know, this school is really known for this and I, I’m really strong in this area. You think you could like talk about this kind of a thing? Um, this is what I wanna study in college and this is kind of how I’m prepared to study in this field.
I think you could talk about this kind of a thing. And, you know, they’re typically open to that. And again, it’s not you writing it for them, but it’s helping them to understand your interests academically, the kinds of schools you’re applying to, um, and how they can perhaps tailor a letter to. Make sure that you’re a competitive candidate for those institutions.
Mm-hmm. , uh, you mentioned how, um, most students are gonna ask for teacher and counselor recommendations. Uh, but students sometimes have additional people outside of school, um, that know them very well and that they’d wanna ask, So, are students allowed to submit recommendation letters from non-teachers or non counselors?
And if so, who can they ask? Uh, so this is a, again, that it depends answer that I have mentioned is, is so popular with admissions folks. Some schools are very strict about the letters of recommendation in terms of how many and who they’re from. And they will say, two teachers, a counselor, nothing else. And if you submit a letter like, No, no, no, but like this, the doctor I interned for over the summer, they’re like, That’s nice.
And it goes in the shredder. Um, other schools, you know, say we need one to be from a teacher. We accept up to three. We’re happy to look at others. Sometimes you’re applying for unique programs, right? Um, where there’s a portfolio piece or it’s an arts program, so they want to hear from an arts teacher, uh, or someone that maybe you’ve worked with outside of school in your particular discipline.
So that can be okay if the person knows you well and can really add a different perspective that has not already been addressed in your application. Sure, it could be helpful, but if it’s just like, Hey, my next door neighbor went to Cornell, and so I’m gonna have him write a letter to me because I’m applying to Cornell.
That’s not gonna add value. And the admission officer is probably gonna roll their eyes that they’re reading it and it’s taking up their time. Um, and so again, you want to think about is this adding something new and really substantive to the value of your application? . Mm-hmm. kind of going off of that, is there such thing as having too many letters of recommendation?
Yeah, if, if you, if they all just say the same thing, right? If, because then it’s just like you’re kind of, it seems that you’re doing it to do it right? And you saw the fact that the school allowed up to three or four and, you know, beyond kind of the initial, you know, one or two. And so you’re like, Well, I have to, Right?
Because if they allow this many, it means I must. Mm-hmm. one, good one, two good ones is absolutely better than three or four average ones. Right? So you don’t need to have everybody that you’ve ever met. Right. A letter of recommendation for you. Um, because ultimately they all start to sound exactly the same and they’re just not adding anything new.
Right. Um, so stick to a couple and that’s usually gonna. I, from my own personal experience, I think I was on the end of adding too many, I think they were still pretty versatile, but I had five, I had my TOK teacher, my English teacher, my assistant principal at my high school, cuz I was doing work around the school.
Um, a counselor from a program that I was in, and then a, um, a woman that I did and, uh, a little. Study project, something for when I was on high school. That was a bit much, but they were all able to add something. You do not need that many, uh, to get into a school. But all of them were impactful because they showed my different activities inside and outside of the classroom.
And then they showed the different work that I did around school and added to my application where I was talking about, um, a program that I started at my high school. So they were able to add more into that or add into what my IB experience was like. Um, but you do not need that many. I was doing a little bit too much.
And check with your school too, right? Because sometimes they might have limits. Yes. Um, and you don’t wanna be the one that’s like going around trying to do more than that and then like, your counselor gets mad at you and, and that kind of thing. Cause they, they might be doing it to look out for the teachers, Right.
And the volume of workload that they have. Um, so understand that if you have, you know, two great teacher letters, you’re in a good, good position. It’s absolutely sufficient to be admitted to any school in the country. Yes. And I know you touched on, um, whether, uh, that students don’t necessarily need a teacher related to their, um, field.
So like if they’re a STEM major, they don’t need a math and science necessarily, though it is helpful, uh, kind of on the other end. Can you ask like, um, what are those classes called? Um, oh my gosh. I think it starts with an e elective teachers such as Art gym. Um, what other elective classes there are? Can you ask them for letters of recommendation?
Um, again, it depends. Uh, I think some schools do explicitly state that it needs to be from like an academic core subject. Mm-hmm. um, Brown is, is fairly explicit about that as an example. Um, so you just want to be. Sure that you spend some time on the websites of the schools to which you’re applying it and see if they explicitly state that.
Um, and so, you know, another option is that that person might be able to write a paragraph that your counselor can include in their letter, right? Um, that’s something that where I do fairly often where students have someone else at the school who knows them really intimately in, in a very kind of narrow capacity.
Um, and that person writes, you know, a brief paragraph to me kind of highlighting the impact the student made in this area. I, and I put it in my letter, right? Like, I’m definitely happy to just put quotes around a paragraph and be like, I’m here directly from more, I don’t have to write. Um, and so that can be a good way to get someone else.
But I, I tend to say you likely wanna stick with academic core subjects for most of your teacher reference letters. That is a great tip. And then also with one of my students last year, she was interested in Notre Dame. Uh, and she wanted to have her theology teacher who also taught there, um, write her a recommendation letter.
But, um, Notre Dame specified that it needs to be a core teacher and theology isn’t counted as a core course even though it was very related. And so I called the admissions office to ask if they could be submitted and they said no. Um, so again, having an advisor to do some of the, um, behind the scenes stuff is very helpful.
But, uh, some schools are very strict on, um, limits and then also who you can. Uh, and then also with me getting a recommender from my, um, assistant principal. I tried putting her in as a teacher recommender, but since she wasn’t a teacher, it automatically like said no on the application, so she wasn’t able to submit it.
So I had to ask an additional teacher to submit, and then she, my assistant principal, um, submitted as another recommender. Uh, going on to the next question, um, should you ask a teacher whose class you’re not doing well in, but they know you very well? I think it depends on, on not doing well, right? Like, is it not doing well for you because you’re getting an A minus instead of an A?
Um, or is it like you’re getting a C, right? Um, you wanna be able to show, I think, growth, um, you know, overcoming the challenge, like even if you know them well, but ultimately you’re still just doing poorly. You know, ultimately they’re gonna say that, right? I, they say like, Hey, this is a great kid, but like for some reason it’s not working in my class.
Um, you know, if they’re being honest. So I would say, you know, define poorly, but ultimately it wants to be where you’ve shown an ability to, in some capacity, be successful. Doesn’t have to mean that you got a hundred percent right. Um, it could be that you really worked to get that B plus, um, or that B, and that’s totally fine because it shows your journey.
It shows how you’re willing to put in the work and the effort. And they can really speak to specific ways in which you did that. But if you’re getting C’s, maybe not that teacher. Mm-hmm. , uh, going off of that, uh, how long should you have known your recommender before asking? And then also should you ask your senior year teacher, even if you have not known them that long.
So again, usually it’s best that it comes from someone who knows you a bit more than what the senior year teachers would be, which would be a few months. But if you make that immediate connection and you’ve already got some great insights to share, um, yeah, I mean, I, I had my senior year AP English teacher write a letter for me, which, you know, was in the dark ages in the context of college admissions.
But, um, it’s possible. Um, so, you know, I would say don’t automatically exclude a senior year teacher, but you know, at the end of your junior year, you want to kind of think, Okay, do I have two teachers that can really, that I did connect with, um, that I feel comfortable writing letters for me? Because you don’t wanna end up in a place where you’re like, Well, no, I’ll wait and see how senior year goes.
And then it’s like mid-October and that didn’t work out either, and now you’re like, uh-oh. So, um, generally junior year teachers are gonna be the way to go, but it does not mean it has to be. Yes. Uh, so I’m gonna kind of combine these questions might be a little bit much, but, uh, can you ask different people for different schools to like get different teachers for different schools on your list?
And then also does one recommendation letter go to all of your schools? Will you get penalized if they mention another school in your letter? Again, admission officers. Try not to hold the actions of somebody else against you. Like I’ve definitely seen that happen in my career where there were reference letters that were addressed and it was like, you know, two make concern or, you know, tooth that you Stanford admissions committee and it just like, like, um, but again, the student didn’t do that, so, So no, we didn’t really hold it against them.
Typically, yes, they often go to all the schools to which you apply, so you don’t want it to. Very specific to that institution. Um, there are, again, some schools like MIT and Georgetown that have their own platforms, and so those are absolutely specific to those institutions. Um, sometimes you can make it work through different ways where you send a kind of specific requests for one school to one teacher and one to the other is just adding more work to the teachers.
Right. So, um, you need to be upfront about that. Ask, um, talk with your counselor to make sure that they’re supportive of that kind of a thing, and that you’re, you know, you have your school on board with you, but it, it can be possible to ask teachers for specific letters versus a general letter that goes to all schools.
Mm-hmm, uh, since we are coming up on time, is there any last minute advice you would like to give to students or tips or tricks? I think, uh, you know, really it’s just make the most of your time in the classroom. Um, because that’s how you’re gonna get a great letter I is that you really engage and make an impact in class.
Ask questions, um, be kind to your fellow students and the teacher, um, and be excited about learning and that’s really gonna be the best way to get a good reference letter. Mm-hmm. Uh, so yeah. So that is the end of our webinar. Thank you to our wonderful panelists, Aaron, for all this great information about securing a strong college recommendation letter.
Um, here’s the rest of our October series where you can find webinars on various college panels, as well as other parts of the admissions process. Um, Uh, you can check those out on our [email protected] And then, um, you can also check out our previous webinars from prior months on various topics throughout the admissions process, especially for those current juniors who are still learning about the admissions process.
Do check out our webinars that go over the entirety of the admissions process so you know all the steps that, um, are coming up. And for current seniors, we will be having increasingly more webinars geared specifically towards y’all, uh, as the deadlines come up. But thank you everyone for coming out tonight and good night.