The Ivy Coach Daily

September 20, 2023

How to Get a Great Letter of Recommendation for College

Columbia University library steps full of students sitting and walking
College applicants too often leave their letters of recommendation to chance. Instead, they can exercise greater control of these letters.

In the college admissions process to highly selective universities, letters of recommendation are among the critical inputs in the decision-making tree. At America’s elite universities, other key inputs include the candidate’s high school, demographic background, coursework rigor, grades, test scores, extracurriculars, essays, and the interview.

Unlike many other inputs, letters of recommendation offer a window into the student’s mind and character from outside observers who get to know the student daily. It’s for this reason that admissions officers so often find letters of recommendation incredibly valuable.

Who You Should Ask for Letters of Recommendation

So whom exactly should applicants to America’s elite colleges ask for their letters of recommendation? Most schools ask for three letters of recommendation. These recommendations should come from two junior year teachers in core five subjects — English, history, math, science, or foreign language — and the school counselor.

Who You Should NOT Ask for Letters of Recommendation

Note that we didn’t suggest letters of recommendation should come from ninth-grade teachers or a student’s public-speaking teacher. Admissions officers don’t want to hear insight into a student’s mind and character from a teacher of a “fluff” subject — and it only further reiterates that the student took a fluff class in the first place.

Also, admissions officers don’t want to hear from your state’s senator or a past president of the United States. And, no, they don’t want to receive a letter of recommendation from the Dalai Lama. Instead, they want to hear from someone who knows the student in an academic setting. Submitting a famous person’s letter will only undermine a student’s case for admission, rendering the applicant less likable. In general, and with certain exceptions, the only acceptable additional letter of recommendation that’s ok to submit is from a professor who supervises a student’s research during high school. Otherwise, the golden rule of elite college admissions applies: “The thicker the file, the thicker the student.”

When To Ask for Letters of Recommendation

Students should ask their teachers and school counselor for letters of recommendation during the spring of their junior year. They should ask in advance of the summer so they can do so in person. Also, this way, the teachers and school counselor can then have the opportunity to write letters of recommendation over the summer months when they’re not busy writing lesson plans and running after-school activities.

How You Can Secure Powerful Letters of Recommendation

The biggest mistake college applicants make concerning the letters of recommendation component of their case for admission is that they often leave these letters to chance. They ask their teachers and their counselor if they’d write letters on their behalf and then think they’ve satisfied this big ticket item in the admissions process once the recommenders have uploaded their forms. In reality, it’s a surefire way to secure generic letters of recommendation.

Students Should Write Anecdotes to Share with Their Teachers and School Counselor

So how can applicants secure compelling letters? That’s easy. They can subtly influence the content of their letters of recommendation. In the spring of their junior year, they can share anecdotes with their teachers and counselor in written form, making it easier for these recommenders to draft the letters. The anecdotes should be in complete sentences, in the first person, since it would be presumptuous for the student to write these stories in the third person.

When they email these anecdotes to their teachers and counselor, they can include a simple note like: “Thank you so much for offering to write a letter of recommendation on my behalf. I thought it might be helpful if I sent you some stories to remind you of my contributions to our class. Thank you again, and have a wonderful summer!” Or course, if the teachers or school counselor has forms for their recommendations, complete these forms with great care, and they should, naturally, contain anecdotes.

Anecdotes for the Teacher Letters of Recommendation

And what kind of stories should students share in these anecdotes? Here are some teacher recommendation examples, which should focus on the student’s contributions to that class, not their extracurricular activities.

A comment made in a class discussion that shaped the course of the discussion.What was the comment? How did it shape the class discussion? This is a chance to showcase that the student is an active participant in class discussions rather than a wallflower.
A project the student worked on.How did the student contribute to the project? How did the student work with others? What were the takeaways from the project?
A time the student helped a classmate understand a concept.What specific concept was the student struggling with? How did the student teach this concept to their classmate?
A book the student read for pleasure inspired by classroom learning.Maybe the teacher doesn’t even know the student read this book. Now is the student’s chance to tell the teacher. It’s an opportunity to showcase intellectual curiosity.
A homework assignment the student loved.What did the student learn from the assignment? Why was it exciting to the student?
Applying classroom lessons to the real world.How is the student applying the lessons from economics or history or math in everyday scenarios? Students should show these lessons are impacting their day-to-day lives.

Anecdotes for the School Counselor Letter of Recommendation

Here are some counselor recommendation examples, which should be more focused on the student’s extracurricular hook:

The origin of the student’s interest in their singular hook.If the student’s interest is history, what got them interested in history during their high school years?
An activity at the school that showcases the student’s hook.Describe the student’s participation through the years. What has the student done to contribute to the in-school activity?
Another activity at the school that showcases the student’s hook.Describe the student’s participation through the years. What has the student done to contribute to the in-school activity?
An activity outside of school that showcases the student’s hook.Describe the student’s participation through the years. What has the student done to contribute to this out-of-school activity?
Another activity outside of school that showcases the student’s hook.Describe the student’s participation through the years. What has the student done to contribute to this out-of-school activity?
The student’s future as shaped by this hook.Detail how the student is going to take on the world’s problems as their own through this singular hook.

Are There Forms to Complete Along with the Letter of Recommendation?

Sometimes teachers and the school counselor provide forms to students after they agree to write their letters of recommendation. School counselors quite often offer both student and parent forms. If a student’s teachers or counselor, or all three recommenders, provide such forms, they should answer them with great care. They should be chock full of the same anecdotes detailed above. Even if a teacher or counselor asks questions that don’t relate to the sorts of stories prepared for anecdotes, it would be wise for students to pivot back to those specific stories.

After all, many teachers and school counselors need to learn what should be included in letters of recommendation. All too often, they focus on the student’s grades when letters of recommendation are an opportunity for admissions officers to learn about candidates beyond their grades. How a student (or parent for any parent forms) answers these prompts offers direction to how the teachers and counselor should approach their letters. And, parents, we strongly encourage you to write about your child as a high schooler rather than as a child. Admissions officers at our nation’s elite colleges don’t care about how precocious your children were back in preschool.

Letter of Recommendation FAQs

Does my child need to waive their right to see their letters of recommendation?

Yes, suppose a student doesn’t waive their FERPA rights to see their letters of recommendation. In that case, admissions officers will think two things: (1) the teachers or counselor are writing the recommendations with the student looking over their shoulder, and (2) the student has something to hide. Not waiving FERPA rights will, in all likelihood, torpedo a student’s candidacy.

Are there any highly selective colleges that don’t accept letters of recommendation?

Yes, the University of California schools do not accept letters of recommendation. Some highly selective schools have eliminated letters of recommendation from the admissions process in the hope of making the process fairer since some believe letters of recommendation perpetuate inequities.

Would a trustee letter be a difference-maker for my child in the admissions process?

It depends. While a strong letter from a trustee who knows the candidate well can help, it can also backfire. Trustees tend to have many friends and thus get asked rather frequently for letters of recommendation. Often, they even have a shorthand in their letters — a code — that conveys whether they want to lend their support to the student. And the student and the student’s parents will never be able to decipher that code, even if shown the letter.

Should my child only submit a letter of recommendation from a teacher who gave them an A?

Admissions officers can see an applicant’s grades independent of the letters of recommendation. So students can ask any teacher of a junior year core subject for a letter. Admissions officers don’t want to hear about a student’s grades in the recommendation. Instead, they want to hear about what the applicant is like in their classroom. So if a student asked engaging questions and completed outstanding projects in a class in which they earned one of their lower grades in high school, they should certainly not rule the teacher of that class out as a recommender.

Do English teachers write the best letters?

Not necessarily. A student should not hesitate to ask a math, science, history, or foreign language teacher because they’re worried about the teacher’s writing. Admissions officers don’t care about the quality of writing in the recommendations. Instead, they care about what the recommenders say about the student. Besides, teachers who don’t take pride in their writing, as English teachers so often do, are usually more likely to use the anecdotes students provide them precisely as written.

Ivy Coach’s Assistance with Letters of Recommendation

Through Ivy Coach’s packages, we help our students help their teachers and school counselor submit compelling letters of recommendation that will wow admissions officers at our nation’s elite universities. We brainstorm and revise anecdotes to submit to the teachers and counselors and also help our students and parents complete forms that will serve as the backbone of powerful letters of recommendation. If you’re interested in Ivy Coach’s college counseling assistance, fill out our free admissions consultation form, and we’ll then be in touch.

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