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College Admissions

Recommendation Letters

In the last couple weeks, many of my students have been asking whether they need letters of recommendation for their college applications. While some big public institutions like the University of California and California State University do not consider recommendations, many schools do use teacher recommendations to get more information about a student’s impact in the classroom.

Students often wan to know how many letters they can submit. If a college asks for one letter of recommendation, feel free to send two, but six is overkill. Admissions officers may wonder why you need to try so hard to convince them you’re a worthy candidate.

If you’re submitting one teacher recommendation, it should be from a teacher you had during junior year. If your favorite teacher, who you know will write the best letter, is from sophomore year, that’s fine for a supplemental letter.

That doesn’t mean you always ask a teacher in the class where you got the higher grade. Sure, it’s great to have a teacher rave about how you were the best writer in your English class. But a letter from a teacher saying that you got a “B” in AP Chemistry but came in for extra help every week and were committed to mastering the material even though it was a struggle can also impress admission officers. You want a letter from a teacher who knows you well and can provide details about your academic endeavors so the recommendation doesn’t sound like a hundred other letters the admissions officer is reading that week.

An English or history teacher is a good choice since admissions officers like to know that students can write well. If you’re submitting two recommendations, it can be helpful to ask a math or science teacher for the second one. Of course, if you’re applying to engineering programs, a math teacher recommendation would be important.

If you’re using the Common Application, you can print out the form from the website and give it to your teacher, along with an addressed, stamped envelope. You want to make it easy for teachers to do this favor for you.

Some teachers ask for a brag sheet or activity list, so they have a fuller picture of the student’s life outside the classroom. But it’s best if teachers focus on a student’s classroom performance. Admissions officers want to know that a student has a genuine interest in learning and contributes to class discussions.

It can help to tell your teacher about your college plans. If you’re applying to business programs, your teacher’s letter might include examples of the leadership you’ve shown in class as well as your facility with statistics.

While colleges generally ask for a teacher recommendation, admissions officers may also consider supplemental letters from a coach or employer. If you’re going to submit an extra letter from someone outside of school, make sure it’s someone who knows you well and can talk about your character. A letter from a parent’s business partner or an influential acquaintance who you’ve met briefly probably won’t have much impact in an admissions office, unless that person is a major donor to the school.

Teachers in some schools may be asked to write forty or fifty recommendations, and they can understandably get burned out. It’s best to ask early in the school year and give them at least three or four weeks.

Be sure to write thank-you notes to everyone who wrote a recommendation for you, and share your good news when you get your acceptances. They have invested time and energy in your admissions process and will want to know the outcome.

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