The letters of recommendation (LOR) required by colleges are the source of much confusion and, to be honest, rarely as powerful as they could be. Let’s shed some light on this particular piece of the college application. There are several types of recommendation letters – teacher recommendations and character recommendations – and that is where things get jumbled.
When a college asks for a recommendation, this is what they are looking for. Many ask for 2 letters, one from a teacher in the science/math area and one from the English/social science/foreign languages area. They want these teachers to be as close to the college level as possible. Translated that means they have taught your child in 11th or 12th grade in AP or Honors courses. Some colleges just require one letter and some do not specify the subject the teacher has taught. But, to cover all bases, be prepared to solicit one in each of the two fields.
Ideally, these teachers will know your student very well inside and outside of class. We want them to be enthusiastic about your child and dedicated to selling them to the college. For this to happen, your student must be very proactive in class. This is an easier thing if your student is in public or private school. Because of this fact, homeschoolers often panic over the LOR and pop their kids into a class at a nearby college hoping for a great rec. However, remember that entry-level classes are usually large and the teacher won’t know who your child is unless they are frequently in office hours and actively participate in class. Bottom line, don’t take a college class just for the recommendation. There are good reasons for taking a college class while still in high school, but this isn’t one of them!
Online AP teachers can be a good source for the LOR, but again, the student must go out of their way to interact with the teacher, be very active in class, and work hard to prove themselves. In situations where we do not have live teachers, college classes, or online teachers, we have used academic mentors, tutors, or speech club coaches.
When Do You Ask?
In a best-case scenario, students will approach the teacher at the end of a stellar junior year and ask if they feel they could write a strong letter of recommendation for them. If not, go to another teacher. We don’t want them writing one if they don’t feel they could do a good job or don’t have the time. If they agree to write one, the student would give them a packet containing:
- a letter explaining what would be helpful for them to cover (each recommender has a specific job)
- a list of the schools they are applying to (and what each is looking for)
- a copy of their resume
- a copy of my pdf Letters of Recommendation that Get Results
- an explanation of the process the deadline
This gives the teacher time over the summer to think and write (while the student’s performance is still fresh in their memory) and then they can hold the letter until needed in the fall. One well-written letter can be used for all schools as long as a specific school name is not included.
Many schools use the Common Application and this simplifies things. When filling out this application, the student specifies which schools will get his information. He will also give the email addresses of his recommenders. Common App will then email the teachers and ask them to fill out a form and upload their comments, which will be sent to all the student’s schools. Schools that do not use the Common App and have an online application of their own will have a similar system, but a teacher will have to upload to each school. If the school still uses snail mail, the student should copy the teacher forms for each school, waive her right to see the letter, and provide postage paid large envelope(s) to the teacher to mail in.
This is the second type of recommendation and many people confuse this with the teacher recommendations. Some colleges will specifically ask for a character reference such as Christian schools that often ask for a letter from a pastor or youth group leader. But, by and large, most schools don’t provide a means for submitting character references and don’t want them. The exception to this is students who are non-traditional, such as homeschoolers. In this case, colleges are often open to receiving a few (read that one or two) character references provided they add something to your story. Usually these will have to be snail mailed. Just make sure that every page contains the student name, social security number, and date of birth.
While any parent is profoundly proud of their children, I’m afraid those of us who homeschool tend to go overboard in gathering up glowing comments about our children. Many moms ask for letters from anyone who has had contact with their child and hoard them like a squirrel frantically gathering nuts before a blizzard. By the senior year, their file cabinet is bursting with letters they plan to dump on colleges. You’ll have to trust me. Letters sitting in your file cabinet since 9th grade are of no use. Make a nice scrapbook out of them, but don’t submit them to a college. It will make you look totally clueless.
- In today’s competitive market, there is much fraud and anything passing through a parent’s hands can be suspect. Thus, a parent should never see or touch a recommendation letter. Even character references should be mailed from the recommender directly to the college.
- Requesting these letters is a job for the student, not the parent!
- We want letters from people who know the child well, not your best friend who attended that college and not your senator or representative who doesn’t know the student and can only discuss the child’s resume achievements.
- I can serve as a third party to help recommenders do a better job for my private clients. Many families have asked for my help particularly for non-traditional character references from people who are not accustomed to LOR writing or where English is not the primary language of the recommender.
- Most people who agree to write a letter for your child want to do a good job but don’t know how. Help your recommenders do a better job with my Letters of Recommendation That Get Results!
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