The Letter of Recommendation
While high school teachers are familiar with the process of writing letters of recommendation, there is a lot you can do to make the process go smoothly.
Colleges and universities vary considerably in their approach to letters of recommendation. Some schools require no letters at all. Some require one letter, some two. Military Academies generally need three. The UC Application doesn’t ask for a letter of recommendation, but many individual UC campuses and programs do. Similarly, the basic Common Application does not require letters of recommendation, but many schools that use the Common App do. Students are informed of supplemental requirements like this when they choose the schools they will be submitting to. Some schools will ask for letters from teachers in specific fields – one letter from a STEM* instructor and one from a Humanities instructor is a pretty common requirement. No matter what the case, the letter should be from a teacher who knows you pretty well – this means it may not be a teacher from your current classes. A recommendation from your counselor will probably be expected as well.
Most applications today are done online. This means that most of your letters of recommendation will be submitted that way as well. The common practice is for the applicant to enter the letter-writer’s email address and other relevant information into the online form. A request is then emailed by the application to the teacher outlining the requirements. Sounds simple, right? Just type and go!
Students need to approach the teachers they plan to ask for recommendations at the beginning of their Senior year. The teachers you chose should be teachers who are familiar with you and your work; this means they might not be current teachers but teachers from years past. This does not mean that you should be asking for letters at that time. Simply ask if they are willing to write recommendations. Don’t worry, they’ve almost certainly done so many times before, so you aren’t asking for anything out of the ordinary.
Once you’ve lined up willing teachers (I’d say have two confirmed and an auxiliary in mind), you will need to determine the recommendation requirements for the colleges to which you plan to apply. Next, you can approach your teachers for letters. But what should you ask for?
Once you’ve reminded the teacher in question about the letter, describe the process they’ll need to follow (yes, they’ve done it before, but do it anyway). If it is the case that the online application will send them an email, ask the teacher, “When would you like to receive that?” Get a specific date if possible – don’t just accept “whenever.” In most cases, the application will send your teacher an email within a few minutes of you entering their information. You don’t want your request to get buried in their email stack. You should also ask when they think they can get it done by. You may also ask, “Should I follow up with you? When?” Some teachers may appreciate the reminders, others not so much. Your online application will have some sort of indication when the teacher’s recommendation has been received, and—as a rule—the recommendation isn’t submitted until you click “Submit” for your entire application.
In the uncommon circumstance the college/university asks for physical letters, allow even more time to get everything taken care of. If you are concerned about your letter actually getting where it needs to go, you can check in with the admissions office by phone or email to make sure they’ve received it. Don’t be pushy! If the answer is “no,” give it 3 days before trying again. If the deadline passes.
What if a teacher’s recommendation is late? As I’ve said, high school teachers are generally very familiar with this process. If you give them enough notice, they will come through. However, if for whatever reason they do not, don’t panic. My research has shown that in a lot of cases, colleges and universities can be rather forgiving when it comes to receiving documentation that relies on other people’s actions. However, this is not always the case for some elite programs and scholarships. Your best bet is always going to give yourself plenty of time and set personal deadlines that are earlier than the official deadlines.
A Note On Supplemental Recommendations
Don’t send them. Every resource I reviewed said that applicants should not add supplemental letters of recommendation, even if a means to do so is offered. Why shouldn’t you send a supplemental? Because unless you can come up with a very, VERY compelling reason for sending a supplemental/unrequired recommendation, you are 1) creating extra work for admissions officers and 2) pretty much yelling “I don’t know how to follow instructions!” at them. As for what would constitute a compelling reason, I have to say that I have not been able to think of a situation where sending a supplemental recommendation would add anything that had not been covered in other aspects of the application. If you have a unique experience sending supplemental recommendations, please share in the comments below.
A Note on FERPA (Federal Education Rights and Privacy Act)
This is the federal law that protects the privacy of a student’s educational records. One of the first things you may need to do as you begin the application process is to sign a FERPA waiver. Some states have their own separate versions of the law.** Your school counselor probably has a simple form to sign. No matter your eventual college application strategy, find out if that form is needed and take care of it as soon as possible.
This is where I get to have my, “Ya know, when I was a kid…” moments. It never ceases to amaze me at how much the college application process has changed since I applied to college in *ahemcoughingfitahem*. For me, it was a simple matter of picking schools (I believe I applied to 5), writing an essay, getting my letters, shoving it all into a big envelope, and then taking them to the post office. While the technology we have has made much of the process so much easier, actually getting into the school of your choice is a much more competitive process. By making it easier for your teachers to do your letters of recommendation, you are upping your chances a tiny bit. And it may be that tiny bit that gets you over the wall and into Generic Ivy League University.
*Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics
**California law is essentially identical to the Federal law. There is also a supplemental law regulating online service providers called “SOPIPA” (Student Online Personal Information Protection Act), which probably won’t be an issue in this process unless the student is homeschooled or in some types of alternative school.