How to Get Excellent Letters of Recommendation for College

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You’ve probably heard the popular phrase, “It’s more about who you know than what you know.”

Although we believe there’s more to success than networking, we also know this adage carries a lot of truth. In every facet of life, your connections matter, and college letters of recommendation are no different.

You’re probably not going to get into college based strictly on who you know (unless your grandfather has a building named after him on campus). But if you establish solid relationships and excel in the classroom, the people you do know will write excellent letters that will give you the best chance of acceptance.

Here’s what you need to know about securing and submitting quality letters of recommendation:

10 Tips for Getting Excellent Letters of Recommendation

  1. How many? For the majority of private schools, you will only need two letters of recommendation from teachers and one from your school counselor (at most).

  2. Which schools? You do not normally need any letters of recommendation for UCs and CSUs. UC Berkeley is a recent exception. Last year, it released its own set of guidelines for prospective students.

  3. How do you choose? You should ask teachers who a) like you and Bb) know you well. Don't worry about status or title.

  4. Can I ask coaches?  Remember that these should be ACADEMIC letters. Sure, your coach knows you well and will say nice things, but these need to be from your teachers first and foremost. Coaches, mentors, and vice principals second.  Or if someone is both teacher AND coach, even better.

  5. Which subjects?  The teachers should generally be from academic disciplines (math, science, English, history, and language). Nothing against PE teachers, but they can’t speak much towards your academic prowess.

  6. Junior year only?  It’s ideal to ask teachers from your junior year. Teachers from senior year probably won’t know you well enough by the time you ask. Teachers from sophomore year are acceptable but starting to show signs of age. The best letters often come from teachers you’ve had for multiple years.  

  7. When to ask? Ask for letters either a) before school ends junior year, or b) at the beginning of senior year if possible. The best teachers get booked up and may not be able to write a letter if you wait until the fall to ask them.

  8. What about engineering? If you are applying for engineering or science-related majors, you should generally have at least one math or science teacher write a letter.

  9. What should I give my letter writer?  Even if the recommenders know you well, you should provide them with a resume, brag packet, and other resources that might help them write a compelling letter. Make sure to follow up with your letter writers by sending them a heartfelt, handwritten thank you card and a small token of appreciation, like a $20 Starbucks gift card. Don’t go overboard with the gift or it might seem like a bribe.

  10. Waive your right - though you’re entitled by law to see your letters, colleges won’t believe their contents.  Waive your right to see what’s written about you.

Once you get your resume materials in order, approach your teachers and make your polite requests before school ends for the year. This is the best time to ask teachers for things. They’re in a good mood. It’s almost summer break after all :)

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