Whether you’re applying through the Common App, Texas’ application system, or a school that doesn’t use a centralized application process, you’ll be asked to submit one or more letters of recommendation. The reason that colleges ask for letters of recommendation is to help the admissions officers have a better understanding of your ability to excel at their school, both inside and outside of the classroom. They are looking for information that extends beyond what they can learn from your transcripts and test scores. Because of this, when choosing your recommender(s), keep in mind the following tips:
Choosing a Teacher Recommender
Recommendation requirements vary by school. Therefore, even if you’re using the Common App, you might need to find more recommenders or recommenders who are not teachers (see tips below). However, most students will only need to ask two teachers for recommendations.
In my experience, the most common pitfall for college applicants regarding recommenders is choosing a teacher where you sailed through their course. Teachers who didn’t see you invest much into their class, even though you performed well academically, can’t really say anything about your ability to achieve academically in challenging courses. Their recommendations are typically very generic and would apply to any student who had performed well in their course. The teacher can’t comment on your character or how you will do when you face difficulties.
For this reason, choose a teacher who got to know you well, even if you didn’t come of out the class with an A. Receiving a recommendation from a teacher who can describe you overcoming obstacles, accepting feedback, and having the willingness to take on new challenges will resonate more with the admissions officers and allow them to see you as a promising candidate.
Choosing a Second Teacher Recommender
When deciding which teachers to choose for your recommendations, look for some kind of balance between the two. Otherwise, the recommendations tend to blend together and cancel each other out in the reader’s mind. Your recommendations are an opportunity to allow the admissions officers to see a more three-dimensional picture of you. Therefore, instead of simply choosing two classes where you earned As, you might go for one academic and one extracurricular. Or, you could choose one class where you demonstrated excellent organization skills during a big project and another course where you were able to use your emerging leadership skills.
Selecting a Non-Teacher Recommender
Depending on the school(s) to which you choose to apply, you may be asked specifically for a recommendation from a counselor, volunteer supervisor or employer. Other schools may simply ask for a recommender who is not a teacher, and you are free to choose whomever you feel would be most helpful to your application. Like the teacher recommendations, remember to view your recommendations as a whole and within the larger context of your entire application package. That may seem like a lot, but schools really do want to get to know you as an individual. Non-teacher recommenders can be fantastic for providing examples of your ability to work as part of a team and attest to your ability to build meaningful relationships not only with your peers but also with a team leader, work supervisor or community organization.
Ultimately, what your recommender chooses to write is up to them. However, when you ask anyone to be a recommender, teacher or no, don’t be afraid to have a conversation with that person about why you have asked that person for this favor. Yes, being asked for a recommendation from a student you don’t know very well is a chore. On the other hand, being asked for a recommendation from a student with whom you have a genuine connection is flattering and even an honor. Just like you wouldn’t submit the first draft of your essay, take the time to decide who you would like your recommenders to be and approach the request with sincerity. This is the best way to secure recommendations that will help you shine in the application process.