How To Get Great Letters of Recommendation (Even During a Pandemic)

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As I meet with many seniors this month, I ask a series of similar questions to get a sense of where everyone is on the admissions process spectrum. July is the time when it starts to move from an abstract idea of “Applying to College” to the concrete idea of “Actually Applying To these Colleges with All These Requirements and, OMG, there’s so much to do.”

For most of us, the pandemic created a strange dilemma: if activities were cancelled and school was closed, why don’t I feel like I had more time to get work done? Most of my students, and frankly myself, feel more behind than usual, not less.

One key place this anxiety comes up is in the letters of recommendation. Usually, your school, counselor, or teachers might have nudged you in the direction of seeking those letter-writers in March or April. But none of us were doing much advanced planning back in March or April 2020. Additionally, COVID has caused upheaval and changes for many faculty, so your favorite AP English teacher might no longer be returning to your school. Suddenly, you might feel at a loss for who to ask.

Great news! You still have time. So take a look below for some advice on how to get great letters in your college admissions file.

DOs and DON’Ts of Legendary Letters of Recommendation

DO Rely on your Teacher Relationships Teachers are in this business because they care about you and they want to help you grow. So over the course of the year they taught you, they have been paying attention to see who you are and how you need to grow! You probably speak to teachers when you’re struggling, yes, but also consider a teacher who you just talked to about the subject. Did you let someone know that you found one unit especially interesting? One of my favorite moments as an English teacher was when a student told me that, “The 10th grade shouldn’t be reading Julius Caesar right now. Too many people trying to stab each other in the back!” Her joke gave us an opportunity to talk through some friendship struggles while also showing that she was paying attention in class. Win-Win. 

This year, your teachers were able to see your academic habits, strengths, and challenges under extreme duress. Whether you loved virtual learning or learned virtually nothing, your teacher was there! This year’s letters will have particular impact in helping colleges interpret your transcript and understand your academic journey. So think hard: which teachers really saw how you handled whatever came your way last spring?

DON’T ask 10 teachers to write for you. Letters of recommendation are about quality over quantity. Truly. College admissions officers have thousands of pages of text to read every season, so they do not want to get bogged down in too many letters. Typically, you will have one letter from your school counselor and two letters from teachers. If you have an especially compelling story outside of those folks – perhaps you’ve been a competitive dancer since age 3 or you’ve earned your Eagle Scout designation – it might make sense to add one additional letter.

DO show different sides of your brain. When selecting teachers, think about the different parts of your high school experience to highlight. Generally, we recommend that you choose one teacher from the Math/Science STEM side of things and one teacher from the English/History/ Humanities side. Junior year teachers are usually the best choice since they know the most mature you.

DON’T assume you have to ask a teacher who gave you an A. Often, the most interesting relationship you have with a high school teacher comes from a class where you struggled. Colleges want to know you as a learner, so choose a teacher who has seen how your brain works! Letters that talk about growth are especially compelling, so if a teacher watched you face a challenge and push through, that letter might be powerful, despite not reaching an A in the course.

DO come prepared! When you are ready to ask a teacher for a letter, let them know why you have selected them. Your college applications package is your way to let colleges see who you are, so what part of that can this letter help show? Was this teacher’s course one that led you to an interest in your potential major? Was it a course that showed you connections with your own life in new or surprising ways? Was this course one that proved to you how hard work pays off? Did this teacher help hone your communication skills in high-level class discussions? When you ask a teacher to write a letter, share these insights.

Send your teacher a clear, thoughtful email. Your email should include the request, “Would you consider writing a letter of recommendation for my college admissions process?” along with your reasoning. Explain specifically why you are asking this teacher and what you learned in the course.

DO also help your teachers prepare. The typical high school teacher has dozens of students each day, so make it easy for them to remember you. Send a copy of your resume, including highlights from your academic career and your time specifically in that teacher’s class. Remind them of something you want to highlight in your application. This kind of information helps focus the letter-writing process. When teachers have 50 letters to write in the middle of summer, extra bits of insight helps your letter rise to the top!

DO write a thank you note. Teachers don’t mind writing letters. Teachers like to share the positive qualities of their delightful students. But writing you a letter is above and beyond the job description, so it is important to acknowledge that extra time and effort. When the letter is finished and sent to colleges, or after your applications are complete, or even after you’ve been accepted at your dream college  – whatever the timing, make sure you say thank you.

DON’T wait until the last minute. There is no time like the present to check a box on your college To Do list. Throughout your life, you will often ask for letters of recommendation for college, for graduate school, and, eventually, for that dream job. A good rule of thumb is to ask with at least several weeks advanced notice. Sure, your college applications are not due until the fall, but if you ask your teachers now, you will be doing both them and yourself a favor. That way, teachers have time to write thoughtful letters which will serve you better in the end.

Katy Dunn

Educational Counselor

Katy Dunn has more than fifteen years of experience educating and advising thousands of students as a teacher, counselor, and administrator throughout the DC metropolitan region. The primary lesson she has learned along the way is that each student needs and deserves a focused educational plan, designed to maximize attention and opportunity while minimizing unhealthful stress.

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