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The Whens & Whos of Rec Letters

Before we get into the specifics of this topic, we need to say straightaway that it is important to research the schools you're applying to, as each may have their own requirements.

Ok, let's get into it!

One of the most common discussions we have with our students centers around recommendation letters. They have so many questions, including but not limited to:

When do I ask for rec letters?

Who should I ask?

How many rec letters should I expect to request?

Can I ask my neighbor for one?

Ok fine, I won't ask my next-door neighbor. What about my grandma?

Once I get people to agree to write me rec letters, how do I submit them?

Needless to say, this seemingly innocuous part of the college application process ends up causing more stress than it needs to.

Here's what you need to know:

WHEN: The best time to start asking for letters of recommendation is at the end of your junior year. IN PERSON (yep, you read that correctly). You have no idea how many other people have asked or will ask the same person you did, and everyone has their own process—teachers who get asked to write several letters often get started during the summer, while some people want to wait until the next school year begins, once they have an idea of how many they'll need to write total. Asking early ensures that you're at the top of the list, no matter how your recommender approaches the process. Asking in person will not only help you stand out, but it also shows initiative and maturity. So take initiative. Be mature.

It's also wise to have a resume finalized, in the event that your recommender asks for it. They'll likely want you to email it to them, so being ready to do so immediately after you speak with them is your best bet. Depending on whom you ask, you should also be prepared to answer some kind of questionnaire or fill out a form, as some people use them to get extra details about you that they can mention in their letter.

WHO: We suggest choosing people who know you well and can speak thoroughly about your character and capabilities. Family and family friends do not qualify as legit recommenders, even if they are alumni of the school you're hoping to go to (hey, look! we knocked out two of the other questions from above!). Colleges and universities want to see unbiased opinions about who you are and how you conduct yourself.

There are some misnomers surrounding the "who" of it all that we'd like to dispel here:

Misnomer #1 You should ask teachers whose classes you had the highest grade in.

Why this is incorrect: the reasons for good grades vary, a few of which include:

  1. You happen to be a good test taker

  2. Your'e smart enough to get an A without engaging in the class or with the teacher

A high grade says nothing about your character or enthusiasm or grit. If all your teacher is able to talk about in your letter is your grades, that isn’t going to set you apart from your competition OR tell the admissions officers anything they don’t already know—they’ll see your grades on your high school transcript already. That’s not to say you can’t ask teachers whose classes you did well in, just make sure that if you do, you’ve made an effort.

Misnomer #2 You have to ask an English and a math teacher.

Why this is incorrect: while this used to be a requirement decades ago, the majority of schools have moved away from it. Do your due diligence & look up each of your school’s requirements!

Here are some examples of people who would be fantastic to ask:

Teachers or mentors who have known you awhile, like

band directors

foreign language teachers

coaches of any kind (sports, debate, etc.)

youth ministers


an instructor from a summer program you took

The adults who’ve known you the longest are more likely to have seen your growth/improvement. It comes down to who you took the time to build a relationship with, who saw you working hard, helping others, etc. Remember: family friends or family members do not qualify.

HOW MANY: A good rule of thumb is to ask 2 people for a recommendation letter, as this is the standard requirement of most colleges and universities. There are some school (looking at you, Baylor) who give the option for you to upload as many as 10 recommendation letters, but we do not recommend this. At all. The reason is because admissions committees only spend about 6 minutes total on your college application, so the more rec letters you make them read, the less time they're spending on the rest of your appliation. Also, it's unlikely that you'd be able to find 10 different people who would have 10 completely different things to say about you. Remember, redundancy is never a good thing. Again, research the requirements of each school on your list. There are random schools here & there that may ask for 3 letters.

HOW TO SUBMIT: On August 1, Common App will allow you to input the emails for the people from whom you’ve requested rec. letters. letters. To do this, you'll need to have created an account with Common App. Once you add the emails of your recommenders, Common App will send those people a notification, letting them know they can upload and submit your letters. In other words, once you make the request and add the emails to Common App, your job is done.

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