Some Tips for Collecting College Recommendation Letters
After visiting so many colleges I’ve learned many things about admissions processes. One is the differences between the ways an admissions office treats college recommendation letters. My suspicion is that college recommendation letters are not taken too seriously unless they are thoughtfully detailed on the positives or extremely negative. Some admissions offices, mainly those at large schools that have a high volume of applications, have actually done away with requiring them.
Counselor-Driven College Recommendation Letters
Many schools will require a counselor recommendation. At a large public high school the student who does not see their counselor often might prepare a “resume” or a “brag sheet” to help the counselor along. The counselor will follow the brag sheet and include the recommendation letter in the student’s application packet.
I’d love to see the counselor’s college recommendation letter dropped as a requirement. Counselors with heavy case loads do not have the time to get to know the student well enough to write a good college recommendation letter. They have little time to write many thorough and thoughtful letters.
But these letters might be important when a student had extended absences due to illness or personal matters, or to explain poor academic performance. They might have value at very small schools where a counselor has actually gotten to know every student, as well as private schools that have a serious college-prep process to help their students research and apply to schools.
Teacher-Driven College Recommendation Letters
I do not believe that there is a high school student who does not have at least one teacher in their corner, even if their grades were lousy. Only students who have poor records of conduct or an extensive number of unexcused absences are unlikely to receive at least one teacher recommendation. Obviously, the best students have many choices.
But here are some tips:
- Choose a teacher who knows you extremely well who also teaches a subject that you’re interested in studying further in college.
- Choose a teacher who has been an advisor to an extra-curricular activity where you have played a major talent or leadership role.
Ideally, the teacher(s) you choose should fit both of the above.
Other College Recommendation Letters
Many high school students are more active outside of school. Any student who is serious about most sports plays on a travel team. Multi-sport athletes are becoming a thing of the past at the high school level. There are always exceptionally talented students who take art or music lessons outside of school. The instructors work more closely with individual students than high school teachers do. So do employers of students who must work part time.
Here too, I have some tips:
- Use recommendations from these people only when the admissions office will accept them. Three letters is becoming the limit for most admissions officers.
- Seek college recommendation letters from these people if you plan to continue that activity in college. This will strength your qualifications for admission.
- Be thorough in explaining what you want the references to write. They do not write as many college recommendation letters as counselors or teachers. Some might have never written one before. Don’t write a brag sheet as you would with a busy high school counselor. But discuss how your involvement with that person and activity relates to your future interests.
Regardless of who writes your college recommendation letters, you must waive your right to read what they wrote about you. Otherwise the reference is more likely to feel uncomfortable about singing your praises in print. More important, be nice to your references, even if they have not submitted your letter, and give them proper notice about your deadlines. They still have time to change their minds.
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