An important part of Green Ivy’s college counseling program involves helping students to understand the role that each piece of an application plays in college admissions. Students sometimes underestimate the importance of letters of recommendation from teachers and counselors, but we have seen them make all the difference in admissions to private schools. Recommendations are so important in part because they provide an outside perspective on a student’s academic abilities, personality and special skills, along with his or her maturity and readiness for college. As part of the letter-writing process, teachers and counselors often provide questionnaires for students to fill out, and parents are sometimes asked to complete “brag sheets” about their children for counselor use.
Whether students attend private or public schools, providing teachers and counselors with quality content for letters of recommendation is a win-win. It makes the letter writer’s job easier and the student’s recommendation stronger—especially considering the average teacher’s workload or the fact that a public-school counselor is assigned roughly 400 students. Given these factors, Green Ivy college counselors spend a great deal of time helping students and parents alike think about the traits and values they want teachers and counselors to convey in their letters of recommendation.
Ask teachers who know you well and will write you strong letters. Colleges prefer letters from junior- or senior-year teachers, and they must teach one of your core subjects—English, math, science, history or a foreign language (no electives). Your top considerations should be your relationship with the teacher and your passion for the subject he or she teaches. We advise you to ask two teachers. More competitive schools require two letters of recommendation, plus you can usually submit additional letters at schools that require only one.
Ask early and politely (and write a thank you note). Ideally, you should approach teachers and counselors in the spring of your junior year, as many prefer to write letters over the summer and some have a limit on how many letters they will write each year. Ask in person, rather than sending an email. Also, inquire about any deadlines for turning in questionnaires, and be sure to give them a handwritten thank you note in the fall.
Take time with your questionnaires. What students often don’t realize is that they provide teachers and counselors with the bulk of content for the letters, even if their teachers or counselors know them well. It’s best to be as specific and detailed as possible. For teachers: Focus on times in class where you steered class discussion in a meaningful way or had a leap of intellectual understanding, or reflect on the way the subject or their teaching has helped you grow. For counselors: Expand on your extracurricular activities and school contributions specifically (e.g., your role on student council, someone you had an impact on while volunteering). This will help them write compelling content in your letters. Overall, share stories about the moments that you are most proud of.
Provide original material. On your questionnaires, be sure not to include content that appears word for word in your personal statements, as many teachers and counselors copy and paste directly from questionnaires when writing letters of recommendation. Ideally, each part of your application should share something new about you with admissions officers.