This is a contributed post from Julie Kelsheimer from Great Minds Advising.
GPA. Test scores. Course rigor. Résumé. Extracurricular activities.
These are just a handful of the many buzzwords surrounding the college application process. It’s true, hard factors like GPA and test scores do quickly and effectively measure your metrics against other applicants.
Soft factors, like the depth of your experience within a particular area of interest or passion, can set you apart from other applicants who cannot demonstrate equal intellectual vitality and expertise.
Still, one incredibly crucial entity can either bolster or hinder your application success: other people.
Why recommendation letters can help your college application
Yes, your contributions to your application should (and do) take center stage. However, just as an employer typically will not hire a potential candidate without securing praise from the candidate’s references, college admissions officers will not finalize your admissions outcome without reading the recommendation letters submitted on your behalf.
As such, you must use your high school years to cultivate and nourish meaningful relationships with the other players in your admissions story, specifically teachers, guidance counselors, and mentors.
Who Typically Writes Recommendation Letters?
Teachers. Typically, colleges require at least one letter of recommendation from a teacher. Though you may be tempted to simply ask your current favorite teacher to write a letter, it is wise to consider many factors and ask many questions when pondering your choice.
When deciding who to ask for a recommendation, ask yourself these questions:
Does the teacher you are considering teach a core course in your primary academic area of interest?
Has this teacher taught you in recent semesters?
Have you consistently achieved excellent grades in this teacher’s class?
Have you had intellectually engaging conversations with this teacher outside of class?
Can this teacher give concrete examples of meaningful ways you have contributed to the class?
Does this teacher have a reputation for being a strong, engaging writer?
Is this teacher the faculty advisor for a school club you lead?
Do you have a genuinely good rapport with this teacher both inside and outside of the classroom?
The teacher who will most effectively illuminate your best intellectual and personal qualities is the one for whom you can affirmatively answer all of these questions.
Related: Are AP Classes Worth the Stress for Your High School Student?
Guidance Counselors. In addition to teachers, most colleges require every applicant’s guidance counselor to submit a letter of recommendation on their behalf.
Unlike the teacher recommendation letter, the guidance counselor recommendation letter should highlight the contributions you have made to your school and community outside of the classroom and detail any notable hardships you have faced and overcome during your high school years.
For a guidance counselor to specifically and honestly speak on your behalf, you must take the time to get to know him or her in a personal way.
Do you regularly converse with your guidance counselor? Do you update them on your contributions to school clubs or initiatives? Do you share your successes outside of school with them? Have you personally explained any adversities that might have negatively impacted your academic performance during high school?
If you initiated a successful school fundraiser, be sure your guidance counselor is aware that you took the lead. If you started a new club or a national club chapter at your high school, pass that information along to your guidance counselor as well.
With the number of students high school guidance counselors must assist, they might not know about every unique contribution you have made to your school. Taking the time to regularly engage with your guidance counselor will help them to share your unique brilliance with your schools of choice.
Mentors. Finally, many colleges will often leave an option for a student to submit a supplemental letter of recommendation.
While this letter is typically unnecessary to submit, attaching one could help support your admissions story if you have a close mentor with whom you have worked in your primary area of academic interest.
Is your primary science research mentor a university professor? Have you interned for a journalist? Have you assistant-directed a play with a director? Have you served on the campaign team for an elected government official?
A personalized, glowing letter of recommendation from an individual of this caliber shows an admissions officer your drive, expertise, and direct impact in your primary area of interest. To achieve high-value extracurricular activities and to create purposeful, authentic connections with the mentors you meet could transform your application from excellent to exceptional.
Putting thought into your college recommendations can make you stand out
As you dedicate hours to diligent study, work through practice standardized tests, and secure relevant extracurricular opportunities, don’t forget to sincerely connect with the teachers, guidance counselors, and mentors you meet along the way. They could very well hold the final key to the gates of your dream college.