September Tip: Understanding the Letter of Recommendation

  • Benjamin Franklin, Postmaster stamp

The Letter of Recommendation is an important way for colleges to verify you are a strong student and have the intangible qualities for future academic success. While the letters of recommendation are not the most important aspect of your application, they certainly help to reinforce positive aspects of your application. And a great letter of recommendation can be the factor that differentiates you in the admission process. This month, we help you submit letters of recommendation that will have the greatest impact.    

Important things to remember about letters of recommendation:

Start now.

If you haven’t already asked your teachers for letters of recommendation, you should do so ASAP. Teachers write dozens of letters each year, and requests pile up around application deadlines. Some teachers even cap the number of recommendations they write each year. Don’t be left out; ask your teachers now.

Be organized.

When a teacher agrees to write a letter for you, make sure to provide a list of instructions to guarantee the letter is sent properly. If a college requires you to send letters of recommendation through the mail, make sure to provide teachers with addressed and stamped envelopes. This is not just a courtesy; by doing so, you are making sure the letter is sent to the correct address. Finally, tell your teachers each school’s submission deadline.

Educate your recommenders about you.

Informed recommenders write better letters. Don’t assume the letter writer knows everything that’s great about you. Provide them with a résumé or schedule a conversation to discuss your accomplishments. The trick is to remind them of your strengths, interests and talents so they can report this information to the Admission Committee.

Choose teachers wisely.

A great letter of recommendation can make an impact, but a bad letter can hurt your application. Don’t choose a teacher who doesn’t know you well or who may not say flattering things about you. A good rule of thumb is to choose a teacher who could write at least two pages about you. The teacher doesn’t have to actually write two pages (and they shouldn't), but they should know you well enough to tell the Admission Committee something new and interesting.

Many colleges will accept a fourth, supplemental letter of recommendation.

This is a letter that can come from a school principal, community leader, work supervisor, coach, pastor/rabbi/religious leader or college alum. A supplemental letter can make a great addition to your application, but they are best used if the letter tells the Admission Committee something new it wouldn’t have learned otherwise from your application.

Follow Up.

Make sure to send each teacher a hand-written thank you note. It is important to recognize the effort they are making on your behalf. Also, be sure to check with the Admission Office to ensure each letter arrived. Trust, but verify.

Stay tuned for next month’s Dip Tip when we share the inside scoop on Early Decision.


As your student considers which teachers to approach for letters of recommendation, discuss with him/her the strategy behind those choices. Often, students will look to their favorite teachers. However, it’s not a bad thing to consider teachers who have seen your student struggle with a challenge and found a way to overcome it. The teacher who always gave your child an ‘A’ is not necessarily the one to write a recommendation. Encourage your student to seek recommendations from teachers who have challenged them and seen firsthand that he/she is ready to excel at the college level.

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