Most selective colleges require two letters of recommendation. You need to think strategically when choosing the people you ask to write those letters.
If you are applying to college directly from high school, the colleges will likely specify that your letters be from teachers. If you did a gap year or otherwise took time off after high school before applying to college, you may also want to submit one or more letters of recommendation that can describe and promote what you have been accomplishing more recently. And, if you are applying as a college transfer applicant, you will need to submit at least one recommendation from a professor who can speak to your academic abilities and your potential ‘fit’ at your targeted transfer school.
If you have been active in a particular organization, either in school or in your community, a letter from someone who can speak to your service, leadership, and commitment may make an excellent supplemental letter to your academic letters. This is most likely to be advantageous in a situation where you need to highlight your strengths in order to mitigate your weaknesses. But don’t overdo it!
Since the admissions committees will be viewing your applications holistically, you should do the same. This means that you should have at least a rough draft of your personal statements and other supporting materials, such as an activity resume, before making any decisions about your letters of reference. Once you understand the strengths you want to highlight, the weaknesses you want to mitigate, any points you need to substantiate, and the compelling portrait you want to develop, you will be able to determine which recommenders can fill any gaps left by the rest of your file.
Focus on Your ‘What,’ Not Their ‘Who’
The best letters of recommendation – the ones that can make a difference in the admission process – are those that provide distinctive and comparative examples of your writing, critical reasoning, leadership, quantitative, analytical, teamwork and research skills – in other words, the skills that are necessary for success in college.
It is also advantageous if your recommenders can discuss how they observed you contribute to class and show that you were prepared, engaged, and a frequent participator. Admissions committees are looking for students who are going to be engaged in the classroom and in the life of the college community – not passive observers who merely do their “homework” and show up to class every day.
The person who can write the most effective letter of recommendation is the person who knows you the best and appreciates you the most.
One mistake that applicants often make with letters of recommendation is that they think “who” the writer is makes a difference to the admissions committee. They will ask a judge, a senator, or their parents’ employers to write a recommendation instead of asking a person with whom they worked directly. What matters to the admissions committee is the content of the letter, not who signed it. Again, the more specific and detailed the letter is, the better. Be sure you are asking the “right” people to write your letters.
It is important to be proactive in order to get the best letters of recommendation. Set up a meeting with the people you intend to ask for letters of recommendation. You need to ask: Can you write a strong letter of recommendation for me? Do you have time to do it? How can I make it easier for you?
But Be Timely, Too
The application review process is perhaps most frequently delayed because a letter of recommendation has not been received by the admissions office. You can make it easier for your recommenders by providing an activity statements and, perhaps, examples of accomplishments you want emphasized. Making the request via a meeting also gives you an opportunity to discuss your goals, career interests, and the schools to which you are planning to apply.
Remember that teachers, in particular, get asked for many letters of recommendation. It is important to give all your writers plenty of lead time to get the letters written and submitted.
Save Something for a Rainy Day
Finally, if you are fortunate enough to have more than two people who are able to write strong, detailed letters of recommendation for you, it is often wise to save at least one letter for later. You may get waitlisted at your top-choice school. When that school reviews applicants on its waitlist for admission in the late spring or summer, the admissions officers will be looking to see that you updated your file with additional information. An outstanding letter of recommendation, particularly one that mitigates whatever concerns may have caused you not to be admitted outright, might get you off the waitlist and into your dream school’s next incoming class.