Go-Getters Get Better Letters!
May 24, 2022

A Guide to Letters of Recommendation

Good letters of recommendation are an essential component of your college applications. An excellent letter complements and completes the skills, experiences, and achievements shown on your transcripts and in your essays. It speaks to your values, personality, and attitude in a more direct and personal way than any of your other application materials might. And it improves your credibility by backing up the achievements showcased in your application with the impressions of your teachers and mentors.

Most often, two recommenders should suffice, but sometimes three or four are requested. An ideal combination would be two academic and one additional non-academic, preferably in a supervisory role. A fourth—if required—can be an academic or non-academic but is often unnecessary unless colleges specifically ask for it. 

Choose a recommender who reflects your major or your chosen career path, as well as someone who has known you for some time, ideally over a year. Recommenders can be teachers with whom you’ve established a good relationship, advisors for clubs or activities, coaches, or other mentors. The most effective way to ensure you have great letter-writers is to start developing relationships early, and don’t be afraid to put yourself out there. Check out our guide on 5 Essential Relationships to Develop for tips on identifying and connecting with teachers and mentors that could serve as future letter writers.

Give your letter writer(s) as early a head-start as possible to complete the task. Writing a good letter takes thought and time, so it is extremely important to give advance notice when requesting a letter. This is important. The best time to ask is at the end of your junior year, but the beginning of your senior year should be okay for deadlines in October. Note that some teachers may have a limit to the number of letters they provide so it’s ALWAYS best to ask as early as possible here. 

Make an appointment with the recommenders and talk to them in-person. This is crucial, as asking for a recommendation is a highly personal affair, and a phone call or email is not. Meeting in-person gives you the opportunity to iron out the details you want included in the letter through conversation, which ensures you agree with your writer on the tone and topics to be addressed in the letter. If you are not able to meet in-person, then ask for a Zoom meeting. Create a document that concisely provides the following information:

  • A direct, specific ask for a “strong letter of recommendation”. If you see or believe there will be any hesitation in their response, then thank them and withdraw the request. It’s best practice to stick to recommenders who can confidently provide you with a glowing letter without reservations.
  • A summary of your class participation and demonstrated outcomes. This is an opportunity for you to discuss your achievements in school thus far and set the stage for the details to be included in the letter.
  • A copy of your current resume to show any working experience you have, as well as clubs, activities, special projects, honors and awards, and skills.
  • A copy of your personal statement, if possible.
  • Any notable accomplishments or projects, described in greater detail than you might have on your resume.
  • Specific challenges you’ve met and overcome. This is also an opportunity to account for any abnormally low grades and explain any extenuating circumstances that affected your academics. Remember to discuss how you worked through these challenges and maintained your focus despite the obstacles.
  • Specific colleges you’ll be applying to, and the relevant deadlines to adhere to. (eg. “UVA, CMU for EA by 11/15th”)

If your recommender isn’t sure what details to include, provide them with a sample so they can get a sense of what makes a great letter. Review some sample letters yourself so you become familiar with different possibilities for structuring and presenting the information in the letter. This will help you identify letter-writing strategies that will showcase your accomplishments, ambitions, and skills most effectively. It will also help you provide your writer with specific guidance for an appropriate length, format, tone, and style. 

Always waive your right to view the letters in the future. This allows your writer to be more authentic. Provide clear guidelines for submitting the letters – usually this will be in the form of an electronic submission, such as the Common App or a college-based form. If it’s in paper-based format, have a self-addressed stamped envelope and all pages printed out to reduce as much work as possible for the writer. 

Be sure to follow up with your recommenders: 

  • (1) a week before submission to “touch base and ask if they need anything else” from you, and to give them a gentle reminder of the upcoming deadline
  • (2) and, a week after submission, to thank them for their efforts. A handwritten letter or card will be a nice touch here, since teachers usually have a ton of letters to complete each year. We do not recommend sending gift cards or anything that is monetary – however, baked goods or something sentimental may be. 

Remember that a great letter can be more than just a supplement to your other application materials. It can demonstrate your character and integrity more directly and enthusiastically than a transcript ever could, providing a fuller picture of you as a student and as a person. Maintaining dialogue with your writer throughout the process will ensure you get a strong letter that will help make any admissions officer’s job of accepting you easy!

It’s important to put attention into every aspect of your journey to college. The Summer Experience at Pittsburgh Prep will set you up for success. Our 1-on-1 Launchpad program and the College Application 2-Week Bootcamp are powerful programs to help you complete all aspects of the college application from A to Z, perfect for rising seniors with college admissions on the horizon. If you’re earlier on in your journey to college, our test prep and academic enrichment programs will strengthen your future applications and start you on the path to your best fit college.

 References: 

  1. University of California, Santa Cruz. (2012, September 2). A Guide to Getting Good Letters of Recommendation. Retrieved September 20, 2021, from https://careers.ucsc.edu/health/medicine/Application/letterofrec.pdf.
  2. “Getting into College: How to Get a Great Letter of Recommendation.” Getting into College | How to Get a Great Letter of Recommendation, The College Board, bigfuture.collegeboard.org/get-in/your-high-school-record/how-to-get-a-great-letter-of-recommendation.
  3. Allison, Alexis. “How to Ask for a Letter of Recommendation: College Essay Guy.” How to Ask for a Letter of Recommendation for College: Step-by-Step Guide for Students, College Essay Guy, 17 May 2021, www.collegeessayguy.com/blog/how-to-ask-for-a-letter-of-recommendation.
  4. “How to Write Good Letters of Recommendation.” MIT Admissions, MIT, mitadmissions.org/apply/parents-educators/writingrecs/.
  5. Safier, Rebecca. “4 Amazing Recommendation Letter Samples.” 4 Amazing Recommendation Letter Samples for Students. PrepScholar, 25 January 2020, https://blog.prepscholar.com/4-amazing-recommendation-letter-samples

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