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Why Recommendation Letters Must Be The First Step in the College Application Process

The season of recommendation letters is approaching.  For seniors, this means taking a first step toward the reality of completing college applications.  For parents, it may represent the emotional acknowledgment that their teen is nearing the end of high school.  Yet for teachers, the season of recommendation letters means writing the proper letter at the right time.

Being both a parent of a college student and a teacher, I’ve seen both ends of this process.  I also know how important these letters can be for applications, scholarships, and financial awards.  How can your teenager work with their teacher to get the recommendation letter that will benefit their application most?  A few steps will be sure to assist in this process.

  1.  Ask for a recommendation letter early enough.  Let’s be honest: many teenagers procrastinate asking for letters.  However, this delay can result in a rushed recommendation.  When a student asks a teacher, “Would you write me a recommendation letter? My application is due this Friday, ” This doesn’t give the person enough time to write a strong and well-thought-out recommendation letter.

Most college applications ask for one or two recommendation letters from teachers, advisors, or coaches.  Many teachers would agree that it’s a good idea for your teen to request these letters about a month in advance, if possible.  Your teen can email – or better yet – approach a teacher in person to ask for a recommendation.  An in-person request is best: an email can get lost in a sea of emails.  There is also an advantage for your teen to see and talk with a teacher for a few minutes when making the request.  If that teacher had five students with the same name as your child in the last year, it helps to put a face to their name and refresh that teacher’s memories of your senior.  In addition, encourage your teen to let the teacher know when their college application is due.  

  1. Your teen should prepare a list of personal accomplishments for the teacher to refer to when writing the letter.  This list should include your child’s GPA, class rank, activities, hobbies, work experience, volunteer work, honors, and awards. Without this list, the teacher may have to rely on memory again – or just classroom interactions.  The goal is to receive a more personal and whole-person recommendation. 
  1. Check back to see if the letter has been submitted.  I love that today when a student lists a teacher as a reference on their college application, most colleges will email the teacher, and a letter can be uploaded and sent directly to the admissions office. Equally convenient is that your child will likely receive an email notification when the letter has been submitted.  But what if your child doesn’t receive a confirmation?  It’s certainly possible their teacher hasn’t sent it yet.

In this case, a friendly reminder may be needed – and appreciated!  Your teen could simply send an email expressing appreciation of the teacher’s willingness to write the letter, and then a reminder of when the letter is due.  If your teen decides she doesn’t need the letter anymore, it’s polite for her to notify her teacher before the time has been taken to write it.

  1. Consider what you hope the letter will communicate.  Before your teen moves forward with requests, there is an essential question for them to ask: What qualities about me do I want the college to know?  What is the most important thing I want to communicate in this recommendation?  

For example, perhaps your student wants the school to know she is a consistent worker.  Or perhaps your student is kind and gets along with whoever sits by him in class.  Perhaps it is your teen’s commitment to her job outside of school.  Whatever that quality is, encourage your teen to let the writer of the recommendation letter know that particular characteristic.  Your teen can say (or email) something like this:  “I’d like this college to know I am a consistent worker.  If you are comfortable writing that in my letter, I would appreciate it,” or “If you saw me as a team-player in your class, could you write that into the letter?”  

  1. Seek scholarships available in your area.  Scholarships worth hundreds – and even thousands – of dollars are available to high school seniors nationwide.  Your school website may list local scholarships.  Often, your teen can use the same recommendation letters they’ll receive for their college application, with only slight changes. Keep a close eye on scholarship due dates, and – if scholarship applications are sent by mail – consider adding a simple introductory cover letter, even if it’s not requested.
  1. Continue working on their college application.  While waiting for a recommendation letter, your teen should keep working on the admission process.  This may include obtaining transcripts from their high school, completing a personal essay, and filling out short responses on online applications.  Once the first application is completed, the process becomes more manageable.  Most colleges will ask for essentially the same materials, so once you have applied to one school, the others will likely be less work. (Of course, your teen may want to cater their application as needed so that it is individualized for each college.)  While your teen waits to hear back from colleges, they may continue applying to others. 
  1. Send a thank you.  When your teen receives the finished recommendation letter, it’s nice to send a  “thank you” email to the person who wrote it.  Then, as a parent, take a moment to read it and soak it in.  It may feel meaningful to hear some words about your teenager from the perspective of another adult.   

The recommendation letter season is exciting.  It’s a moment for your child’s teachers, coaches, or advisors to pause and reflect on the children they have been given the opportunity to teach, coach, or counsel.  It’s a time for students to make those first steps toward a plan after high school.  Of course, it’s an exciting time for parents, too.  It means your child is growing up and exploring the opportunities of the world around them.  It means your teenager is preparing the adults in his life to acknowledge and appreciate what’s next.

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