This is one area where parents can sigh with relief because things haven’t changed that much since they were in high school. While colleges are expecting high school students to have taken more classes and with more of them having been AP level and participate in extracurricular activities to demonstrate depth, they aren’t asking for letters of recommendation from Nobel Prize winners, or at the very least, your state’s senator. High school teachers are still the accepted goto for recommendation letters.
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Now if a Nobel Prize winner happens to know your darling daughter very well and is willing to share her insight into her character, then your daughter might consider asking. But it’s certainly not necessary and may not even be what the school wants.
What Parents Shouldn’t Do
To begin with, let’s get some things out of the way. Parents should not write the letters of recommendation no matter how well they know their kids or how great they think they are. I know, I’m betting everyone is thinking, “c’mon, I would never do that! Give me a break!”
Ok, parents should not be the one’s asking for the letters of recommendation either. Everyone still with me on this? I hate to break it to you, but if your son can’t get his act together to ask for a letter of recommendation, I would say that’s a major red flag that maybe he’s not ready for college. And if you feel the need to rationalize doing this, then there is probably a lot more than college that you and your kid aren’t ready for.
Hopefully, this hasn’t thrown a wrench into anybody’s helicopter, lawnmower, or snowplow motors. Because there’s no reason why parents shouldn’t help their teens through the college admission’s process as appropriate.
Maybe your blessed with an ambitious, organized teen who is in total control of the college admissions process. Congratulations! The rest of us will be happy for you while telling ourselves that not everyone matures at the same pace. Or maybe as we stare at the 3rd email from Bob in HR wanting our time sheets for the last month, we’ll realize that we are far from perfect ourselves and everyone can use a helping hand every once in while.
So here are the five steps for getting a great letter of recommendation for college and what parents can do to help.
Step 1: Planning counts
Yeah, like you didn’t see this one coming.
While parents know that you need to work backwards from the deadline for submitting the letter of recommendation, to the time it takes for the teacher to write it, to the time it takes for the student to gather everything needed before asking, to come up with the real deadline for asking for a letter of recommendation, 16 and 17 year olds generally don’t see it the same way.
Give them credit for starting the application essay before September. Just remember, even with all of the reminders from their teachers starting the spring of their junior year, half will still swear that no one told them they needed to get this taken care of early.
To top it off, each high school may have its own rules and policies about requesting letters of recommendation. Teachers too. Some may cap the number of letters they’re willing to write to a lower number than some of their peers. Then there is also the turnaround time to consider. Some teachers will be faster than others.
Of course, there will be those who will argue for tough love parenting and let their kids figure it out for themselves. However, I doubt any of them would have read this far.
For those who have, identifying the deadlines and working out a calendar with your teen can be a tremendous help. Also, use it as a teaching moment as appropriate. Is there a deadline they would have missed if you hadn’t caught it? Point out that they’ll need to be looking for the same thing as they register and take college classes because you aren’t going to be there to nag them about it.
Ultimately, asking earlier is better. Dave Bergman of College Transitions points out that “Even the most generous teachers will likely not be able to write their 50th recommendation with same level of gusto and attention to detail as they gave their first.”
Step 2: Know what is being asked
Some colleges will ask for recommendations only from teachers in core subjects while others won’t have any limitations. One college may allow students to submit only one letter while another will allow two whereas a third may not have any specified limitations.
Here’s the problem. If you’re doing the planning thing at the end of the junior year in Step 1, your teen may not have decided yet which colleges to apply to. Yeah, it can be a messy situation.
There’s no reason why students can’t ask for the recommendation in general while letting the teacher know that you won’t have the specifics until the fall. At the very least, use the requirements for your state flagship university.
If you haven’t already, this could be the ideal time to have the “money talk.” After all, there’s no point in asking for letters of recommendation for colleges you can’t possibly afford. And if you’re looking for a way to get the college list finalized, try downloading the “7 Days to a Smarter College List.”
But it’s just another data point to keep track of, which teachers your teen still need to provide the actual recommendation form to. Help them figure out how to keep track of everything so you don’t have to be Bob from HR bugging them for the third time about their timesheets. Yeah, I know, for most of you, you’re going to be Bob.
Step 3: Ask the right teachers
Naturally, students should ask teachers who will write the best possible letter of recommendation but those may not be the ones you think. Asking only teachers who gave the students A’s can be a mistake.
It’s possible that the teacher who gave your daughter her only B might be the better choice. Why? Well, if the subject didn’t come easily, maybe she had more contact with the teacher more than in the classes where she cruised to an easy A. In such a situation, the teacher may actually have interacted with her more and have a better understanding of her work ethic and ability to overcome adversity.
Of course, the same thing could apply to the class where she got the A. All I’m saying is that you want to make sure your teen asks teachers who will have “content” to write about.
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Ask for the recommendations in person
Part of the “Ask the right teachers” step that parents can help with is the “asking” part. It’s easy for teens to want to email or text the request. Don’t let the. Tell them this is something they need to do in person.
Even if the high school has an application set up where the student is supposed to enter the request, the student should check with the teacher beforehand. There are all kinds of reasons why the teacher may show up as being available for recommendations but really won’t be. By asking in person, the teacher can let the student know she needs to look elsewhere.
If they’re uncomfortable, have them practice “asking” on you. For those who need it, Mark Montgomery at Great College Advice has a sample script you can use. He also suggests “Consider making your request after school or during a teacher’s off period. Don’t make the request via email or over the telephone. Do it in person: it makes a better impression.”
One last thing to keep in mind, make sure the student provides the teacher with a way to decline. It’s not likely to happen if you pick the right teacher early but…you never know.
A teacher may have already committed to write her maximum number of letters but is reluctant to let down a favorite student. Or maybe the teacher has been a true professional and assigned appropriately the student the grades she deserved in class but otherwise just really isn’t that big of a fan of a student.
Although you would expect the teacher to bow out of the request appropriately but there are all kinds of reasons why that might not happen. There’s no reason to go into them. Just make sure your student plays it safe and includes an easy out for the teacher when making the request. Consider it another life lesson learned.
Step 4: Make it as easy as possible for the teacher to write the recommendation
This step is really the culmination of Steps 1 and 2. Because you or your teen (I’m not judging here) checked out the rules and deadlines, you know the high school’s specific requirements as well as those of the colleges’. Here’s where being organized will really pay off.
When your teen asks the for the college letter of recommendation, he’ll be prepared to ask the teacher the right questions and provide her with all the necessary information.
What do I mean by questions? Some colleges will have the option to submit the recommendation online or send it via snail mail. If the option exists, ask the teacher which she prefers and have all the information and material ready to hand to her right then and there. (This is assuming you’ve already decided on a college and the teacher is willing to commit without having a specific college yet.)
Your teen will further impress the teacher by providing the recommendation forms and stamped envelopes (as appropriate) for the colleges along with a document that lists the colleges and their deadlines and his contact information.
He will also provide a “brag sheet” of activities and accomplishments along with any other relevant information on why he thinks he’s a great candidate for the colleges.
Finally he will tell the teacher that he’ll send an email with all of the information so it will be available online and then (nag alert) make sure he does! This naturally leads to the final step.
Step 5: Follow through
One she asks for the college letter of recommendation, you student is going to have walk the fine line of tracking the progress of the recommendations and providing reminders as necessary without becoming a nuisance. You as a parent however, have no such prohibitions and can nag your teen to do the right thing all through the fall and until she gets the final acceptances.
Your student may have several ways of tracking the progress of the recommendation submissions. The high school may have a system in place that the student uses to ask for the recommendation and where the teacher posts when it’s completed. If the teacher submits the recommendation electronically through the Common App or through the college’s system, the student can generally check the status through the system as well.
But none of these options help in terms of making sure the teacher is working on the recommendation and will make the deadline. As the deadlines approach, you teen can ask the teacher if he needs anything else to complete the recommendation. This serves as an appropriate reminder and the student can use it to anything she many have forgotten in the original request.
If for some reasons the recommendations go through some sort of process at the high school, your teen will have to track that as well. While the reminders may need to be more direct, they still need to be polite. If necessary, he may need to bring in the big guns, you, if things stay “stuck” too long at the high school administration level.
Bring out the big guns
Where you’ll probably need to apply your big “nag” guns is in making sure your teen shows gratitude for the letters of recommendation. Ideally, she’ll write a quick thank-you note once they’re submitted. They should also keep the teachers up-to-date on acceptances.
But at the end of the year, once all the acceptances and have been tallied up and the decision made where to go in the fall, the student must send a thank you note to all the teachers who wrote recommendations. At this point it’s easy for students to forget about those who helped get them where they wanted to go but they need to learn to be grateful and show it.
Take them to a card store and have them pick out some thank you cards to use. There will be plenty left over that they can take with them to college to use there as well. Hopefully, it will be another life lesson that will stick. And when the holidays come around, maybe you’ll drop off some cookies to Bob in HR who was so patient about your time sheets.