When you begin working on your college applications, you'll have a lot of control over how you represent yourself to admission officers. You'll be working towards looking great on paper/screen and your essays will surely convey and support who you genuinely are and what a perfect candidate you would be. When it comes to recommendation letters, it's a time to let go of that control and allow others to talk about you. Recommendations are no more important than any other section of the application, but it does get into a gray area. What others say about you will substantiate what is said about you statistically.
Who Do You Ask?
This is a BIG decision! First, your guidance counselor will be writing a recommendation letter whether you want them to or not. Hopefully, over the years, you've established a rapport with your counselor and they can write about you effectively. If this is not the case at your school, and you have yet to meet with your school's college counselor, then arrange a meeting with the counselor that is responsible for writing your recommendation. Do a meet and greet with some kind of an Interests Profile sheet so they can at least know who you are before your senior year gets underway.
Next, you'll have to pick a few teachers. Choose carefully! It should be a teacher who's taught you during your junior year. You want to choose teachers that you know write well, are descriptive in their speaking, really know who you are as a student and as a person, and know what you want for your future. Do not pick a teacher strictly because you got an easy "A" and did nothing to impress. The grade isn't as important as the relationship you've developed over this past year with your teacher. If you don't feel any of your teachers know you very well, now is the time to make appointments with them after school or during study hall to just talk about your interests, your future, and if they have any advice to further your curiosity in any given subject. Regardless of whether your future college prospects are headed toward a STEM institution or a liberal arts college, or a business school, your best first bet as a recommender is your English teacher. You really can't get away from this pick unless you are strictly STEM and the school doesn't have a humanities recommendation requirement. If that is your case, choose a science and a math teacher to uphold your STEM narrative. If conflicted about who to choose, go with the teacher that knows you best; the teacher whose class you most enjoyed, or the one you worked at the hardest, even if you got a B+.
Those AP or College Credit Plus teachers are good bets for speaking to your college readiness. The classes are taught at a college level, and their stamp of approval that you can handle that level of fast-paced instruction and course load is a feather in your cap.
Some schools, Dartmouth and Davidson, ask for a peer evaluation. The same rules apply when asking a friend to write a recommendation for your dream school. Make sure you can trust your friend to write about you in a favorable light. Again, make sure they also write fairly well.
How Many Do You Ask?
That depends on your school's policy. Some schools ridiculously limit students to one recommendation. NO! You, parents, must speak with the counselor and get an exception for your child to have at least two, since there are schools that require two, and you want to be prepared for that scenario, in case it arises in the Fall. No one wants a recommendation letter from a teacher that needs to scramble on a last-minute request from a student that finds out they NEED two recommendations to complete their application. This is your argument to the counselor to bend the school's rules - use it!
The teacher recommendation letter plays the part of upholding what is being stated in the application by the student. If the applicant conveys that they never give up, then the hope is for the counselor or teacher to mention something similar to that, validating the claim. We'll get into how you ask a recommender to do this for you in Part 2 of this blog, next week, but begin to think about your constructed narrative to your application, and who could best provide the "proof" to your claim of yourself.
Once you start your applications, you'll notice that after you sign the FERPA (Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act) which waives your right from ever seeing the recommendation letters (yes! you want to do this!), a college's requirements might read like this under the Recommenders page:
The following statement is controversial to many viewpoints, but it is College Driven's protocol to fill the "Optional" category with AT LEAST one additional recommendation, two if the selected teacher provides a different perspective from the other selections. Now, I'm not saying to fill EVERY optional space - jeez Clemson allows for 10! No, that's absurd. Be reasonable with your selections in both quantity AND quality.
How about those "Other" Recommenders? The page that often looks like this:
This is another opportunity to display another side of you to college admission reps; take it! This is such a great way to get that coach into the mix, the employer, or anyone that can really add to who you are outside of the classroom. I would not choose a Family Member, however, unless they are an alum of the school, and even then, questionable. But, use this area to your advantage!
When Do You Ask?
RIGHT NOW! You ask BEFORE you leave for summer break! This is an important task to complete! First, you get on the teacher's radar screen by your request. If you attend public school, many teachers limit the number of letters they write. Once their dance card is full, it's done. Asking before summer break guarantees you get that teacher's recommendation before they can't take any more requests. Asking now also gives the teacher an opportunity to write your recommendation during summer when they have more time to thoughtfully think about you as a student and really put effort into their letter.
How Do You Ask?
Just as important as WHEN you ask is HOW you ask. It's so important that I must devote an entire blog post to just the "how" portion. Check out Part 2 next week, and we'll get into the details, just enough time to ask before AP exams and summer vaycay begins.