Tuesday, March 17, 2015

How to Request a Recommendation Letter for a College Application

Yuanyuan “Rebecca” Fang 
World Education Services

U.S. colleges and universities often ask for one to three letters of recommendation as part of a college admissions packet. At least one of these letters is typically written by someone who taught you in a core academic discipline – math, science, history, writing or language. Depending on specific program requirements and individual situations, other recommenders could also be mentors, coaches, counselors, employers, supervisors, family members, peers, or clergy. As a rule of thumb, recommenders should be people who are familiar with your studies, work, or extracurricular activities.

So, how does one request a recommendation letter?

Don’t hesitate to ask! The following guidelines will provide you with the information you’ll need to efficiently and effectively request letters of recommendation.

1. Choose Your Recommenders Wisely

Admissions committees ask for recommendation letters to learn more about your strength and skills, so it’s important to select your recommenders wisely. Before making your requests, check a school’s website or contact its admission office to see if there are specific requirements for letters. Of course, you want someone who can give you a strong endorsement. People who know you well can provide credible highlights from your education or speak knowledgably about your other skills. If you request a letter from a teacher, make sure you have taken (in my opinion) at least two courses with them. It’s probably not wise to select a teacher in whose courses you have received poor grades.

2. Give Them Ample Time

Don’t underestimate the time and work needed to compose a well-crafted recommendation letter. Ask early! When you begin planning to apply to colleges in the U.S., make appointments with your ideal recommenders to ask for permission and get on their calendar. Though you may not have come up with your college list yet, this is a good time to let the recommenders know your interests and goals. You should allow your recommenders plenty of time to prepare and write. Last-minute requests are inconsiderate and may lead to weak or superficial letters.

3. Provide All Supporting Materials and Relevant Information

Make sure your recommenders have everything they need to write your letters and submit them on time. The following information will make it easy for your recommenders to write outstanding and thoughtful letters:

1. An updated résumé or CV

2. Transcript(s)

3. Personal statement and supplemental essay (if relevant)

4. A college list with brief program descriptions

5. Application deadlines and delivery instructions

Tips: Since you will probably submit letters from multiple recommenders, it’s OK to give your writers some direction by suggesting what you’d like them to emphasize (e.g., a particular set of skills, a specific subject area). For example, a letter from a teacher may focus on your academic achievements, while another letter from a coach may attest to your leadership skills.

4. Waive Your Rights of Access

Recommendation letters are typically submitted electronically through school application systems or the Common Application. Under the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), you have the right to review letters of recommendation and accompanying forms. However, it is strongly recommended that you waive your rights of access to your letters of recommendation and authorize your recommenders to release records and recommendations directly to U.S. schools. Waiving your rights will reassure colleges that your recommenders have provided candid and truthful information.

5. Send Reminders (If Necessary) and Thank-You Letters

In most cases, you will be informed by email when a registered recommender submits an online recommendation on your behalf. If your recommenders have not submitted the letter a few days before the deadline, you can send them a polite reminder email. Be courteous and ask if they have any questions or need additional information from you. In my personal experiences, busy faculty and professionals tend to appreciate the reminder. Finally, after they’ve submitted the letters, send them thank-you notes; email is OK, but handwritten notes are even better. A positive and lasting impression will help the recommender say “yes” again in the future if you need another letter!

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Other Resources:

5 Tips for Students Seeking Stellar U.S. College Recommendation Letters

1. Show your instructors an example of a recommendation by a U.S. high school teacher.

2. Make sure the letter is clear and informative.

3. Ask for two letters.

4. Ask teachers to write your letters.

5. If language is a barrier, ask your teacher to write in their native language and get it translated.

4 Myths About U.S. College Recommendations:

1. Test scores and grades matter more than recommendation letters.

2. Nobody reads these anyway.

3. A generic recommendation letter from a high-profile person is superior to a detailed one from someone less famous.

4. More recommendation letters are better.

Rebecca is a research associate for Research & Advisory Services at World Education Services. Rebecca’s research interests lie in both qualitative and quantitative research, primarily in the fields of higher and international education. Rebecca earned a master’s in education policy and social analysis: economics and education from Teachers College, Columbia University, and a bachelor’s in economics from Agnes Scott College.

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