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Countdown to college: Letters of recommendation can be the tipping factor

Lee Shulman Bierer, Tribune News Service on

Published in Education News

College applications don’t open until this summer or early fall, so why are we talking about letters of recommendation in May?

The reason is that now — yes, in May — is the time to begin asking teachers if they’ll be able to write your letter. I’ve heard too many stories of top-notch students who wait until the fall to ask their teachers for recommendations for their college applications, only to be surprised and embarrassed when they are told that their favorite teachers are already full since other students asked them last spring.

Letters of recommendation carry varying weight, depending on the perspective of the college or university and who writes them. The more selective colleges may ask for two or three recommendation letters. Questions abound: Which people should you ask? When should you ask them? What are they used for? Where do they go? Why are they important? And how do you prepare teachers to write the best letter possible?


Letters of recommendation are most powerful when they are written by teachers, coaches, club or internship advisers, youth group advisers or employers who know you well. The people you ask should be able to describe your skills and accomplishments as well as your personality. Colleges prefer letters from junior year teachers since they are familiar with your most recent work. Read instructions carefully since some colleges may specifically request a science or math teacher, especially if you’re applying to an engineering program.



Since most letters of recommendation are glowing and full of praise for the applicant, colleges that take them seriously are trying to get beneath the surface of who you are. The letters that share personal anecdotes about you reveal the less tangible qualities that a college can’t deduce from grades and test scores. A well-written letter of recommendation will showcase your abilities and make you a compelling candidate.


Colleges accept letters of recommendation electronically through the Common Application. Follow directions carefully and don’t send more than a college requests. Colleges that participate in the Common Application detail how many letters of recommendation they require and how many they allow.



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