As you might have gathered from reading this blog, my goal is to incite hysteria about the college application process. That means when I write a post like this that lists steps you should take to improve your odds, you should definitely panic if you have not followed each and every one of my suggestions. Even better, you should start worrying that you won't get in anywhere. It's all or nothing. As Ricky Bobby put it, "If you ain't first, you're last."
I don't exactly understand why this mindset persists, but I see it often with my students: the "what might have been" mindset. Would it be better if I had gotten an A in that class? If I had gotten 50 points higher on the SAT? If I had done more research? If I had done any research? If I had done more leadership activities? Of course it would be better! But what does it matter? Time travel is not feasible. For help making this point, I turn to my friend Rafiki:
Simba: What was that for? Rafiki: It doesn't matter! It's in the past!
And that's what I would say to you. It doesn't matter. It's in the past. Just do whatever you can right now. Following even one of the suggestions I describe below is better than following none of them. When you finish reading this post, you'll have a better idea about how to help your child line up good letters of recommendation.
How Much Do Letters of Recommendation Matter?
A good amount less than the GPA and SAT/ACT. A little less than the essay. Less to public schools than to private schools. Less to non-selective schools than to selective schools.
I'm making this up. No, I'm not. How do we know all this? The National Association for College Admission Counseling, also known by its euphonious acronym NACAC, which rhymes with "crack," tells us on page 30 of their report 2014 State of College Admission.
Nothing is so compelling as an argument from authority -- I agree! Basically, in 2013, NACAC sent a survey to 1,241 universities that are NACAC members, and 352 responded. That's the info we have from NACAC. That letters of rec would matter more to private schools and selective schools makes sense to me. These schools have more applicants to decide on, so they need to rely on additional factors -- such as letters of rec.
Are Letters of Recommendation Required?
It depends. Sorry for the least helpful answer ever. But it does. The good news, though, is that it's pretty easy to figure this out for Common App schools. Log into the Common App, and click the "College Search" tab:
Then click the "Application Requirements" button:
To see the "Recommendations" column, remember to scroll all the way to the right.
And now, here's what you need to decipher the Recommendations column:
- TE. The number in this column shows how many teacher evaluations, also known as teacher letters of recommendation, the school requires. Chances are, you'll apply to at least one school that requires 2 teacher evaluations.
- OE. The number in this column shows how many other evaluations the school requires. So who would write these "other evaluations"? The Common App suggests the following: arts teacher, clergy, coach, college access counselor, employer, family member, and peer. I would add mentor, summer school professor, and research supervisor.
- CR. A "Y" in this column indicates that the school requires a counselor recommendation. Most private schools do require this.
[Note: MR is for mid-year report, the update some schools require so they can see first-semester grades. We're not worrying about that now.]
Whether a school requires letters of recommendation is not the whole story. We also need to figure out whether a school accepts letters of recommendation. For example, though most Common App schools won't require an "other evaluation," many will accept one. If you have special circumstances or special achievements that your teacher rec and your counselor rec won't highlight, consider using the other evaluation.
Once you've logged into the Common App website, click on the "My Colleges" tab and click on a college name; at the bottom of the screen, you'll see numbers for "Required" and "Allowed" numbers of teacher evaluations and other evaluations:
So the More Letters of Recommendation, the Better?
No, it's not about quantity. It's about quality -- specifically, whether each letter of recommendation adds something unique to your application. Suppose you had to choose from the following two scenarios:
- Scenario 1: You can have 2 stellar letters of recommendation from teachers who love you.
- Scenario 2: You can have 2 stellar letters of recommendation from teachers who love you plus 1 so-so letter of recommendation from a teacher who is neutral about you.
That third letter of recommendation in Scenario 2 isn't looking too great right now.
I'm Nervous - How Do I Know Whether My Teacher Will Write a Good Letter?
What grade did you get? If you got an A or a B, then you're off to a good start.
Beyond your grade, how were you in class? If you were contributing in class every day, asking good questions, trying hard on group projects, etc., then maybe your teacher noticed. I slept almost every day in Physics AP. I thought it was less frequently, but Christa insists it was almost every day. In my defense, the room was dark because we were looking at some slides (I'm assuming). There's no way I would ask Mr. McGehee for a rec because I was terrible. Sorry, Mr. McGehee. I appreciate your patience.
Did you develop a relationship with the teacher outside of class? This could include conversations before or after class, either about what's covered in class or about some related interest...or even an unrelated interest. Maybe this teacher is the adviser for a student club or extracurricular activity, and you got to know the teacher that way.
What did the teacher say when you asked for a letter of rec? If you're lucky, the teacher volunteered before you brought it up. That's a good sign. If when you asked the teacher responded, "Sure!" that's also good. If the response was more hesitant than you expected, consider whether you need another option.
In the end, you might not know for sure how good the letter will be. There is uncertainty. Use your best judgment and move on.
Which Teachers Should I Ask?
Most schools will leave it to you to choose. Some, however, request a teacher from a specific subject area, such as math or science. Unfortunately, and as with many aspects of this process, the precise requirements vary from school to school. Google it. Assuming you have freedom to choose whichever teachers you want, here's how I usually suggest my students narrow it down:
- Junior year teacher...
- ...of an academic class such as English, math, history, foreign language, or science...
- ...that you got an A or B in...
- ...who likes you.
When you're figuring out which teacher, of course it's useful to choose at least one who teaches a subject you intend to continue with in college. For example, if you're pre-med, then your AP Bio teacher is a good option. If you're pre-med and choose English and History teachers but no science teachers, you might leave the school wondering whether you're really good at or interested in science.
Also, I know there's some stress from choosing a teacher in whose class you earned a B. But if you got a B first semester and raised it to an A second semester, that trend gives the teacher a good positive to write about.
My Teacher Said "Yes" -- Now What?
Many teachers will ask students to complete a packet short questionnaire so that they can get a fuller picture of who the student is. The questionnaire might include questions such as:
- What were your strengths and weaknesses in class?
- Describe a project, paper, or activity you were proud of.
- How did you contribute to this class?
- What are 3 adjectives that describe you?
So many times I hear people say about this or that, "Don't overdo it." Here I would say, "Don't underdo it." If there's one mistake I see students making, it's failing to include enough details.
You can't just list a strength in class like "worked well in groups"; you have to explain what the assignment was, what challenges your group faced, and what you did to resolve them. You can't just list your weakness; you have to describe a moment when that weakness manifested itself -- who, what, when, where, why -- and then describe another moment when you overcame that weakness.
You can't just describe a project you were proud of; you have to provide all the little details -- the ones that are perhaps insignificant to anyone else -- about why the project fascinated you. You can't just say you contributed "leadership" to the class; you have to go into detail about particular moments so your teacher remembers how you made your contribution. You can't just list 3 adjectives; you need to give a particular moment, preferably from class, showing you living out those adjectives.
Write about specific moments that reveal your character. Write about details and actions. This all sounds familiar, yes? Perhaps you remember reading it in the Essay Guide for Parents or in my post about how to create a sense of immediacy for your reader? No? Then go read those!
This Sounds Like a Lot of Work. Do I Have to?
It's time-consuming, no doubt. You can't just crank this out in 30 minutes the day before your letter writer's deadline. Remember, you don't get a second chance. Whatever you submit to your letter writer will probably end up in your letter of recommendation, sometimes word for word.
Whether you have to put in this much effort depends on where you are in the applicant pool. Let's return to the original point from that NACAC report. The letters of recommendation matter more to private schools and to more selective schools. If that describes the schools to which you're applying, then invest the extra 2 hours and do this the right way.
When Should I Ask for Letters of Rec?
Ask as early as possible in the fall. If you have to do a questionnaire, you want to get that as soon as possible so you can manage your workload better. Also, if your teacher has limits on the number of letters of recommendation she writes, you don't want to be shut out because you waited too long.
Lastly, in case you decide to apply early action or early decision somewhere, you want to let your teacher know so she can factor that in. Yes, that means you have to get your list in order early Fall and decide whether you're applying early anywhere. You don't want to discover your perfect school in October, decide to apply early, and then find out that you've missed all the teacher and counselor deadlines for the letter of rec.
How Do I Get the Letters to the Colleges?
Again, it depends. Talk to your counselor. If you're looking for some answers to nuts and bolts questions for handling letters of rec for the Common App, please see the Common App Recommenders FAQ.
What Is FERPA, and Should I Waive My FERPA Rights?
Let me paraphrase what you'll find on the Common App FERPA explanation. FERPA is the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. It gives you the right to see your letters of recommendation under certain circumstances. If you waive your FERPA rights, colleges know you don't have the right to see your letters of recommendation. This will allow colleges to trust that your recommender is being honest.
Go ahead and waive your FERPA rights. As the Common App website points out, even if you don't waive your FERPA rights, you still don't get the ability to approve what your recommenders write. So what you'll gain -- credible letters -- far exceeds what you'll lose -- the right to see your letter eventually.
Oh, right. Now we actually need to know how to waive those FERPA rights for the Common App. Proceed to the My Colleges tab and select a college; then click on the "release authorization" link.
But My Teacher Asked Me to Write My Own Letter of Recommendation. What Now?
This isn't a negative thing. Well, it isn't a negative thing unless you screw it up, which of course you won't because you're reading attentively.
Now you have much more control over your letter. You already know what to do. You'll want to figure out 3-5 important moments that demonstrate your potential to contribute. You'll want to focus on details and actions. You can start by listing examples of what you contributed in class, what you were most proud of, what your biggest strengths and weaknesses are, and what three adjectives describe you. This is what you do anyway in responding to teacher questionnaires. The only difference now is that you have more control over which shining moments the teacher will write about.
And yes, it's perfectly fine to waive your FERPA rights and write your own letter of rec. Waiving your FERPA right just means you're giving up the right to get the college to show you the letter of rec. If your teacher decides to let you write your own letter of rec, that has nothing to do with FERPA.
Just Do What You Can!
This post has covered the questions that I keep running across this season with students and parents. You can only do what you can do. Don't dwell on opportunities missed. Focus on taking care of the items that are within your control. As some wise person somewhere once said in ancient times, "All you can do is all you can do."
The big picture is that though the letters of rec are important, especially for private and selective schools, they still come in behind GPA, SAT/ACT, and the essay. If you have any frustration about not controlling the letters of rec, get started by taking it out on the essay -- our Essay Guide for Parents is a great place to start!
Jon Perkins holds a B.A. in English from Stanford University and a J.D. from Harvard Law School. He helps students with their college, law school, and medical school applications.