Seniors: How do you request recommendation letters?

By Rajkamal Rao  

Most colleges use online recommendation platforms. Image Courtesy: UT Austin

Seniors often ask us the best way to send recommendation letters to colleges. Recommendation letters form a crucial part of your overall profile and in an age when admission tests like the SAT/ACT are becoming less relevant as more colleges go test-optional or even test-blind, essays and recommendation letters, both being subjective assessments, become ever more important.

Essays are your subjective descriptions of yourself; recommendation letters are subjective descriptions of you by someone else.

You request recommendation letters typically when you enter the 12th grade. By this time, you should have a fair idea of the list of schools to which you plan to apply. 

There are two types of recommendation letters: Counselor recommendations and teacher recommendations.

Counselor recommendations

In general, counselor letters are more important than teacher recommendations. Counselor letters represent the official evaluation of the entire school about you and includes information related to non-academic qualities, such as attendance, school-sponsored extracurricular activities, community service, tardiness, bullying, etc. A principal is unable to write such a letter for all students in a high school, so, this task is delegated to the designated counselor who oversaw your performance. Your counselor is assumed to know enough about you to write a fair fact-based opinion, largely based on grades and other data contained in the school's information systems.

Counselor recommendations are generally divided into four areas: Distinctive Qualities; Intellectual Growth and Trends; Areas of Significant Impact; and Readiness for College & Recommendation.

Here's a sample letter, courtesy of Michelle Rasich, Director of College Counseling at Rowland Hall, an independent, coeducational day school in Salt Lake City, for a fictitious female student, SueAnn. 

1. Distinctive Qualities

While SueAnn prides herself on her academic accomplishments, it is her concern for and interest in other people that are her most defining attributes. For SueAnn, “A friend in need, is a friend indeed.” She is the student who will notice someone sitting alone at lunch and encourage her friends to join the student. She is the leader among her peers who stands up for what she believes in. She is the traveler who will dive into a new culture, practicing her Spanish with pride and conversing with strangers as if they were old friends. SueAnn is the volunteer who will roll up her sleeves, create a new school club, the “Helping Hands” Humanitarian Club, and work with refugee students in our community. She is the artist who loves writing poetry or prose and sketching for class or pleasure. She is the soccer player who, despite being plagued by a nagging injury, always brings physical and mental toughness which her coach cites as the hallmark of her game. She is the babysitter who is in top demand within her neighborhood. SueAnn will change the world because she believes in and practices the art of human connection, relationship building, and caring.

2. Intellectual Growth and Trends

In this year’s senior class, the highest total number of GPA weighted courses, including AP and/or Advanced Topics (AT) courses, taken by any student is 15 courses. SueAnn has taken a total of 10 GPA weighted courses, which is a very demanding course selection at Rowland Hall.

COVID-19 Impact: SueAnn is the only senior to take every social studies course available. She was scheduled to take additional elective courses this year that were unfortunately eliminated due to the scheduling constraints created by our COVID-19 safety protocols to reduce in-person capacity.

 SueAnn is one of seven seniors in AT French V, which is our most rigorous world language sequence that begins with about 25 students annually in French II in the ninth grade. In French V Honors, students read works by French philosophers, in French, and write a fifteen-page research paper, in French. Awards: Last year, SueAnn was awarded 1st prize in a Federal Bar Association’s National Essay Contest and was also the Utah State Debate Champion.   

3. Areas of Significant Impact

As a four-year member of our Cross Country and Track teams, SueAnn has been a constant in the running program. She is always present, cheerful, hardworking, and committed to contributing to the team’s success, which earned her the recognition of Coach’s Choice (a sportsmanship award) her sophomore year, Most Improved Runner her junior year, and team captain this year. 

Outside of school, SueAnn is drawn to volunteering with organizations that serve or support children. She is wonderful with children and enjoys spending time with them. Whether she is behind the scenes working as the Social Media Manager of our club Roots and Shoots﹣a club working towards integrating refugee children into our community through teaching them about the environment in weekly lessons﹣or she is tutoring middle school children in math and helping them develop their organizational skills, or she is creating programming for children at an after school program for “Circles Salt Lake”﹣ whose mission is to reduce poverty in the Salt Lake area through creating connections and friendships that aid people to thrive﹣or she is a summer camp counselor at the YWCA, SueAnn chooses organizations with missions that she believes in and are committed to supporting the growth and development of children.

4. Readiness for College & Recommendation

SueAnn’s growth and development academically and personally has been consistent throughout high school resulting in a strong sense of self-confidence in her ability to transition to and succeed in college, which is why I proudly recommend her.

Name | Title | Email

Teacher Recommendations

Teacher recommendations are very important too. Someone who knows you really well and can speak to your strengths (and weaknesses) is always the best choice. Recommendations from teachers are by design more personal and colleges love to see teachers providing in-person accounts of their students.

Suppose you chose Mrs. Robinson, your AP English Language teacher, to write one of your letters. [The others are your Math teacher who also dubbed as your tennis coach, and your Athletic Band Director].

You would send Mrs. Robinson a polite email requesting her to write you a recommendation letter - and why you're asking her to do so. A few pleasant words about how much you enjoyed her classes - or during your activities working with her outside the classroom - would help. Attach your resume so that she knows your entire profile. And tell her the list of schools you're applying to (including their deadlines) so that she can plan her work. If she's a good teacher, several students just like you will be approaching her for help.

Follow up on the email by walking into her office and reminding her about your email. Ask her if there's anything she's looking for which will help her write the letter. And tell her that she should shortly be seeing links from colleges and universities in your list.

Teacher recommendations are generally divided into four areas: Student's experience with the curriculum; Academic Growth and Trends; Personal Qualities; and Recommendation.

Here's a sample letter from an AP English teacher, courtesy of Michelle Rasich, Director of College Counseling at Rowland Hall, an independent, coeducational day school in Salt Lake City, for a fictitious female student, SueAnn.

1. Student’s Experience with the Curriculum

SueAnn began English 12 via Zoom while in quarantine in Baja awaiting admission to the US. Her previous English education included language classes in Italy and a semester in Dublin. Although she’s adapted remarkably well, she had deficits to overcome that students raised with American schooling did not; for instance, she’d never made a works cited list and relied upon an indirect organizational structure in her essays that’s typical in Romance languages but seems repetitive to English speakers.

2. Academic Growth and Trends        

We’ve now been in school for 12 weeks, with SueAnn attending in-person for less than half of that time due to cohorting for COVID and her quarantine in Mexico. Nevertheless, I know her better than almost any other student in the class because she’s met with me at least weekly, lingered after class to graciously ask questions, and responded as promptly and pleasantly to email as any senior I’ve encountered. Her academic growth has taken several forms:

Through composing and repeatedly revising two literary analyses, SueAnn has learned the basics of paragraphing, organization within paragraphs, quotation and attribution, and mechanics in English, and she’s done so exceptionally quickly. Every time I’ve asked her to revise to incorporate a new skill, she’s happily and promptly done so and resubmitted for more feedback.

SueAnn has met with me to brainstorm topics for her college essays, discuss the conventions of the genre, and go over mechanical questions. Together we’ve puzzled over such seemingly basic questions as “What is the difference between ‘watch,’ ‘see,’ and ‘look?,’” questions that animate her much more than they animate most students because she’s so eager to learn. 

SueAnn’s reading comprehension, speed, and fluency have improved, evidenced by her reading aloud in class (which she always volunteers to do) and her improving quiz scores. SueAnn’s conversational English has improved, both as a result of her participation in class and of forming social connections with some really wonderful seniors, who take her on local hikes and explore Salt Lake City to the degree that the pandemic allows.

3. Personal Qualities

I’ve worked with many international students. SueAnn stands out as the most resilient, pleasant, diligent, curious international student I’ve worked with for several reasons:

Where many new students accept that cliques have already formed and fall into the social sidelines, SueAnn pushes herself to engage with others and has no trouble making friends. Her eagerness to speak English “like a native speaker” leads SueAnn to all but beg me to line edit assignments with her so that she can practice. She never backs down from a challenge, even drafting, redrafting, revising, submitting, and resubmitting a single essay until it reaches the standard that other students have had years of education in this country to reach.

SueAnn is an ideal student in her willingness to make mistakes, perhaps partly as a result of her experience as a 4-language guide in Florence. Her curiosity to learn about people and cultures trumps any embarrassment she may feel. Truly, I’ve never seen anything like it.

4. Recommendation

SueAnn’s resilience, coachability, friendly personality, and quick learning curve will make her an asset to your institution both academically and socially. I recommend her without reservation.

Teacher’s Name | English 12 Teacher | Email

Optional recommendations

Sometimes you may want to request additional recommendation letters beyond the two teacher and one counselor recommendation letters typically allowed on college application portals, such as the Common App. Perhaps you served for a local charity whose leader is willing to write you a letter and is asking you for a format. Worse, the person may ask you to self-write a letter and send it so that that person can submit it in as though he/she wrote it. You should avoid this at all costs. Self-written recommendation letters violate student code of conduct and are inherently dishonest.

Before you ask your external reviewer to proceed, you should ask your target college if they even accept such letters, and if they do, how such letters can be sent. UT Austin allows you to request a recommendation letter link from within MyStatus (see below). Other colleges may direct you to their website or an email address.

The format that each institution uses for external recommendations can be different. To prepare your reviewer, have them evaluate you using CommonLOR, a format used by top graduate schools of business. Word or .pdf versions are available at the bottom of the link. Note that your target institution may not use the CommonLOR. Remember to send your recommender your long-form resume to provide some context beyond what they know about you.

Requesting recommendation links

Now that you have prepared your recommenders, it's time for you to have those links sent.  Requesting recommendation links works differently based on the application platform you're using (Common App, ApplyTex, Coalition App, etc).

Before you start filling out the Common App, check out this page for what you’ll need to gather to successfully complete your application. As you come to the end of the Common App, there is a section that allows you to select which teachers, counselors, and advisors from whom you want recommendations. At this stage, you will also waive your FERPA rights - see the UT Austin step-by-step process below to understand what FERPA is.

When you're done with the FERPA step, a link is sent to each of these people, via email. They will fill out an individual evaluation (rating you on a scale of 1 to 5 using various factors) and type in the recommendation letter into a box on the Common App form. When they "save and submit" their recommendation letters, these evaluations are stored in the Common App database and will stay there until you apply to the college of your choice. You can verify that the letters are submitted by logging into the Common App - the status will show "Submitted".

Note that the recommendation letters are designed to be generic, so your teacher should refrain from indicating the name of your desired college on the recommendation letter. This is also to prevent the hassle of asking your teachers for letters again and again for every college that is in your list.

As you complete your application to a particular college from the Common App, the tool will ask you to verify if the list of recommenders is still accurate. When you confirm, the Common App sends a notification to your target institution to "download" the recommendation letters from the Common App database. You can see the status as "Downloaded" when a college has done just that. 

Exceptions: The University of Texas, Austin (if you use ApplyTex)

For UT Austin, the process is different because ApplyTex, UT's preferred application platform, does not offer the Common App feature of sending recommendation links. So, UT designed its own "link" system from its MyStatus page. The following details apply only if you use ApplyTex. [Remember that UT and Texas A&M have both switched to the Common App (from Coalition), so if you're already applying to schools using the Common App, there's little need to use ApplyTex]. 

1. Log in to UT's MyStatus page. You can only do this after you have completed your ApplyTex or Coalition App, paid the fee, and have received your UT EID.

2. On the Admission tab in MyStatus, click on "Document Upload Requests."

3. Click on "Select Other Doc Type"

4. Choose "Letters of Recommendation" from the drop down and select the radio button "send a request to someone to upload a document for you." You can request three letters, typically from your science, language arts, math, or social studies teachers. You may also submit up to two optional letters of recommendation - from teachers, mentors, or people who know you well, either within or outside of your high school. The letter should give additional context or information to support your admission that is not already provided in your application or other submitted documents (résumé, transcripts).

5. Waive your FERPA rights to see your recommendation letter. Remember that these documents are 100% confidential between the recommender and the university of your choice. When you grant a FERPA waiver, you are freeing recommenders to talk about you without fear of being sued or otherwise harmed. Most colleges will not review recommendation letters if you don't waive your FERPA rights because colleges cannot tell if you could be in on the recommendation letter process, including, in extreme cases, if you self-wrote your recommendation with the express approval of the teacher (a common occurrence in foreign countries).

6. Fill out the details of the recommender including the email address. The college will send a secure link to the recommender when you're done with this step. When the recommender clicks on that link, a form and a text box will open up for her to complete the recommendation letter. Anything that the recommender writes will directly be part of your student record, but because you waived your FERPA rights, you will not be able to see it. And this is by design.

What About Schools That Do Not Provide Links?

Not all schools allow you to send links to your teacher to complete the recommendation letter online. In such cases, you either upload your recommendation letter after receiving it from your teacher, which means you have a chance to see what your teacher wrote about you, or you ask your teacher to mail it to the target college or university, in which case you will protect the recommendation's confidentiality.

Consider Texas A&M, which does not provide a link for third party uploads. This restriction applies only if you use ApplyTex. [Remember that UT and Texas A&M have both switched to the Common App (from Coalition), so if you're already applying to schools using the Common App, there's little need to use ApplyTex]. 

Recommendation letters can be uploaded by the student on the student's Application Information System (AIS) page. Go to the "Upload Documents" page under the "My Documents" tab. Because you are uploading your own recommendation letter, you can see its contents before upload. Texas A&M doesn't care too much about the FERPA rights of confidentiality.

If your teachers want their letter to remain confidential, they should mail it to the address below. Documents mailed to Texas A&M cannot be viewed by the applicant and will remain confidential. Be sure to have your recommender include your Texas A&M UIN ID and email address which uniquely identify you to Texas A&M.Give your recommender a postage-paid envelope addressed to:

FRESHMAN Admissions Processing
Texas A&M University
P.O. Box 30014
College Station, TX 77842-3014

Follow the same process for all the other Texas public universities: UTD, UNT, Texas Tech, etc.

The Most Important Step

Make sure you thank your counselors and teachers profusely. Their time and effort could well mean the difference between attending that first-choice college or not.

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