At most universities, you are allowed to see your application and the reviewers’ comments upon request. I decided to see my Yale application and what the reviewers wrote about it recently, and what they said about my letters of recommendation was particularly intriguing.
Applying as a biology major and science-interested student, I wanted my recommendations to reflect my scientific talent. I asked my biology teacher of two years to write one and my psychology/theory of knowledge teacher to write the other. Additionally, I had a supplemental recommendation coming from the head of a lab I did a research internship in. Counselors submit recommendations as well, and I had spent significant time getting to know mine. My psychology teacher had told me that he wrote very highly of me, and I had reason to think my other recommendations were fairly strong.
Admissions officers score letters of recommendation (LORs), as well as many other parts of your profile. LORs are scored out of nine at Yale with nine being strongest, but differently elsewhere (Harvard is out of four with one being the strongest, for example). I got sixes on both of my teacher LORs and a seven on my supplemental LOR from one admissions officer, and the same but with one teacher LOR a five from the other officer. Both gave me a six on my counselor recommendation.
These may seem like low scores, but one has to remember that some truly exceptional students apply to college with LORs from governors, congresspeople, or even senators. The sixes represented letters of recommendation where the teacher/counselor called me “truly inspiring to teach,” “one-in-a-million,” and “a rare combo of raw talent, high aptitude, gente kind demeanor paired with leadership and assertiveness” (according to the admissions officers’ comments).
The seven from my supplemental recommendation, I believe, got me into Yale. Your goal, if you’re applying to top schools, is to get a seven.
What Are Letters of Recommendation?
The first thing to note is that LORs, as is often forgot, are often more than just a “letter.” Teacher recommendations involve a form as well, the full version of which you can look through here. This form includes a section asking the teacher to rank you on various qualities, including “intellectual promise,” “maturity,” “concern for others,” and “reaction to setbacks.” These are as important, if not more important, than what they say about you. Just about everyone can get LORs that say nice things about the student, but having the teacher rank you as “one of the top few I’ve encountered” is much harder.
There is also a section that asks the teacher to describe the nature of their relationship with you--how and for how long they have known you. It asks what grade they knew you and what classes you took with them. Oddly mixed into these is the question “What are the first words that come to your mind to describe this student?” At the end, there is an open section for them to write as much as they want about you with the prompt “Please write whatever you think is important about this student.”
Whom To Ask
In general, it is a good idea when applying to schools with a liberal arts focus to ask for one teacher recommendation from a STEM subject teacher and one from a Humanities/Social Sciences teacher. Some schools may require this, but most often it is left up to you to decide.
I would argue this is far less important, when you have the option to choose, than selecting teachers who will say the best things about you. Admissions officers are very smart people usually, and they are unlikely to devalue a recommendation from a teacher because of the subject they teach. Selecting two STEM recommenders, and getting two strong recommendations, is a clear signal that you are strong in the skills required in these subjects. This presents a more compelling picture of the type of student you are than one strong STEM recommendation and an average recommendation from a teacher in another area.
For counselor recommendations, you generally don’t get the chance to choose--your counselor is assigned by your school. For supplemental recommendations you can choose just about anyone, but you want to balance reliability and the quality of the recommendation. A pretty good recommendation from someone who interacts with many students is probably just as good as an exceptional recommendation from someone who might be less informed about the general capabilities of students. In general, I recommend supplemental recommendations only if you are confident that the letter will be very strong and say something new. Sport coaches and music teachers are common, but they often have little to say about a student’s academic ability and only vaguely comment on general features of athletes--hard working, team player, etc…
If you have an internship (distinct from a part time job), your mentor is likely to be a good person to ask. Mentors for good internship programs are likely to be strong communicators and smart people. Often internship mentors will compare a student favorably with their adult coworkers, demonstrating a student’s talent in a certain field and ability to transition academic knowledge into the real world.
As mentioned, I asked my research lab head to write a recommendation for me, and I believe it was a major factor in my admissions. I was not an exceptional research intern (I made plenty of typical lab errors and exhibited typical unawareness of cancer research practice), but one admissions officer wrote “Rare 7 level Hutch mentor rec adds more buzz” and the other wrote “has my vote in committee. See supplemental recommendation to get there.” Intern mentors write many fewer recommendations per year than teachers, and thus are likely to spend more time and effort fully describing what they believe to be your best qualities.
When To Ask
You should ask as early as possible, but at least two months in advance for a teacher and a month in advance for a supplemental recommendation. It is not a bad idea to ask over your junior summer. Remember that teachers have many students asking for recommendations--especially that popular English teacher or the friendly math teacher. It’s not uncommon for a teacher to receive as many as 40 recommendation requests per year. If you’re one of the first to ask, the teacher is more likely to do yours early, when they aren’t rushing to finish many at once.
It’s entirely likely that a teacher writing last minute applications will essentially fill out a form recommendation with your name and a project you did well on, and admissions officers can recognize this instantly. One of my admissions officers noted that one recommendation was “brief yet stronger language than usual for this teacher,” implying they know the teachers and whether they have a form they are just filling out for you or writing something special.
How To Ask
It is often recommended that you ask in person, but as a somewhat awkward person I found email easiest. Most teachers will be completely okay with a respectful email. You can start by mentioning that you enjoyed their class a lot. Then you can write something similar to “I was wondering if you would be willing to write a recommendation for my college applications,” followed by a short description of what you hope they have learned about you as a student. For example, “My interest in your course material led to some of my best academic work. I also hope that you have seen, in your classroom and around school, my initiative and leadership.” This gives them a sense of what you hope for them to write about.
At the end, you should offer to provide any other information they may need. Attach a resume if you have one available. Some teachers will ask you to fill out a form with open ended questions to get the information they’re looking for when writing a LOR, so be prepared for this.
How to Get Better LORs
Demonstrate engagement. The vast majority of high school students, even at elite private schools, do little more than attend each class. If you actively take notes, ask questions, go to office hours/tutorial, and do your genuine best in the class, regardless of the grade you receive, teachers will like you much more than lazy, talkative students, even if they do exceptionally well. The same is true for any extracurricular activity.
Show appreciation for their effort. Teachers go into teaching because they love it. They want people to value and benefit from the effort they put into lessons and activities. If you email each of your teachers once a year after a class you found particularly engaging saying just that, you might be the most popular student at school.
Discuss your admissions strategy with your recommender and provide sufficient information. Recommenders generally want to help get you into college. Tell them how you are hoping to portray yourself, and they’ll do what they can to find examples that support that side of you.
Letters of recommendation are admissions officers’ way of getting an outside perspective on you.
LORs are more evaluative than you think. They are not just letters, but they ask teachers to rank you on a variety of important traits.
LORs are important in admissions. They can make or break your application. My admissions officers wrote around four times as much about my LORs as all of my essays.
There’s a lot you can do to affect the quality of your LORs, especially if you start thinking about it early.