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The ultimate guide to recommendation letters

The principle of “plan early, act early” is not only applicable throughout the application process, but also essential when obtaining recommendation letters. If you want your teachers to put in a good word for you, you need to plan and start as soon as possible.

The letter of recommendation comes in handy because when other people acknowledge your strengths and characteristics, your profile becomes more authentic and persuasive. How to best utilize recommendation letters to boost your application profile? Keep reading to find out!

Common Types of Recommenders

1. Counselor

Counselor’s letter is always required by the university. Why? School counselors not only know every student’s school performance, but also have deep insights on the school’s academic rigor, class ranking and previous admission results. Therefore, they are able to write a comprehensive and objective recommendation letter for students.

2. Teacher

While counselors provide a comprehensive view of your performance, teachers can offer more precise evaluation of your academic abilities through courses, experiments and homework. Universities usually require 1–2 letters of recommendation from teachers, one from a subject in Humanities and the other from STEM.

3. Peer and family members Recommendation letters from peers or family members can reflect a student’s character from a non-academic perspective. These letters are usually optional since it’s hard to maintain absolute objectivity. Only a few colleges require peer recommendation letters, such as Dartmouth and Davidson College.

4. Other connections

If students have met other important figures in their academic journey, they can also consider these people as recommenders. They could be the student’s summer school professors or other professionals in their intended field. It should be noted that their recommendations would only be sincere and effective if they actually know the student well — their authority and reputation alone won’t be enough.

A Persuasive Recommendation

Similar to application essays, a letter of recommendation also requires passion and genuineness, making the admission officers believe the recommender truly appreciates you. There are two factors you need to consider to make sure the letter is effective:

1. The relationship between you and the recommender

If the recommender is close to you and cares about you, he or she will have more content to write about and emphasize your strength. The best choice is a teacher who knows you very well — they will be able to write a letter with a lot of great details. Counselors, other teachers or internship managers are your second choice — they will be able to highlight one specific facet of your character. If your recommender graduated from your dream school, his/her letter will make your application profile even more competitive.

2. Actual content of the recommendation

First, the content needs to be authentic. Too much exaggeration will demolish the letter’s credibility. Also, the content can be an extension of your personal statement. If your PS couldn’t present a full picture of you due to word limits, ask your recommender to mention the same themes or examples in your PS, but from different angles. If you have a dream school or an intended major, you should also let your recommender highlight relevant experiences and characteristics of yours.

Steps to get a letter of recommendation

1. Come up with a recommenders list early

In the first semester of your junior year, you should have a rough list of recommenders in mind. It takes time to develop a good relationship with these teachers. You need to maintain a good grade in their classes and visit their office hours more often. Then, they will have enough materials to write about when the application starts.

2. Talk with your recommenders in multiple ways

Writing recommendation letters is part of the teachers’ job. So, don’t be shy to ask them to be your recommenders. It would be great if you can tell them your intention in multiple ways. You could discuss this in person or on the phone, and then write an official email letter to them to show your sincerity.

3. Provide detailed personal information to your recommenders

In your official email, you need to provide as much detailed information as possible, including the list of schools to apply for, due dates, and a personal summary. The personal summary will be the recommender’s source for writing — you can provide a list of your achievements, including awards you have earned in the past, outstanding performance in class, extracurricular activities and your hobbies. You can also point out what you want them to emphasize in the letters to give them some direction and inspiration.

4. Communicate timelines early and clearly

Writing recommendation letters takes a certain amount of time and the recommender may receive many similar requests from other students — teachers are very busy during application season. So, don’t wait until the last minute to ask your recommenders about the progress of the letters. Send them respectful and friendly reminders as the deadline approaches.

5. Waiver and "Thank You" note

When submitting your application, you must choose “waive the right to see my recommendation letter”. In other words, admission officers can only trust the objectivity and fairness of the recommendation letter if they ensure that students cannot see the content. Finally, don’t forget to write a thank you note to the recommender to express your heartfelt appreciation.


The most important thing about recommendation letters is to START EARLY. As long as you leave enough time to plan your strategy, choose your recommenders and communicate expectations with them, you will nail this part of the college application with flying colors!


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