Plan for Letters of Recommendation During the Pandemic

Letters of Recommendation (LOR’s) are among the factors considered in a college’s decision to accept or reject you. Admissions Officers (AO’s) learn how to glean more useful information from these letters than you may think.

If you’re a senior applying to highly selective colleges this fall and you haven’t started working with recommenders yet, you should begin immediately. Teachers, especially the more popular ones who receive the most requests, need at least a month to prepare a letter that will serve your purposes.

The preceding is my standard advice to seniors at this time of the year, but 2020 is far from a normal year. Most seniors are now using virtual technology and taking courses remotely. This makes the faculty-student collaboration needed for effective LOR development more difficult than usual. Even though AO’s understand the extra burden that the pandemic places on applicants, they’ll still prefer an applicant with strong LOR’s to one with weak ones.

Unlike seniors, this year’s juniors have plenty of time to identify and work with the faculty members whose letters can add the most value to their applications. If you’re a junior, get an early start on LOR’s. This will assure that the most effective letters possible are submitted on your behalf.

What Are LOR’s?

AO’s view LOR’s as a source of information they need to form a holistic picture of you as a person. LOR’s and other qualitative input supplement your academic record so colleges can narrow the pool of academically qualified applicants down to a reasonable number. For this reason, AO’s value first-hand descriptions of you that aren’t available elsewhere in your application. They assume that if your teachers speak glowingly and knowledgeably about you that you’re more likely to succeed academically and contribute to their student body and community.

A typical LOR rarely grabs the attention of an AO, but that need not be true in your case. Your letters will have an impact if you treat them as more than just “to-do” items to be checked off a list. Guide your recommenders in understanding what you want to communicate to colleges. A recommender’s acceptance of your desired approach is the basis of letters that will mesh comfortably with your application’s core message. This enables an AO to know you better and to advocate for your admission.

Who writes your letters is as important as what’s written in them. Choosing recommenders carefully assures that your letters will be specific, appropriate, enthusiastic, and personal, the four characteristics that AO’s prefer. If a teacher initially balks at your LOR request for any reason, don’t press them. Find a replacement.

Find Teachers Who Will Work With You

 You may have a good relationship with a teacher who agrees early in junior year to write a recommendation for you. Don’t assume that the rest of the process will take care of itself. Meet twice with them, once late in junior year and again early in senior year. Meet in person if possible.

Prior to these meetings, write a letter to each of your recommenders that states your core message to colleges. Your letter should also include a reminder of how well you performed in their class. Attach a graded paper or exam. Also attach a resume that lists your GPA, AP and honors grades, honor rolls, college courses taken, and awards received. Name a few of the colleges that you’re most interested in attending. Scan and upload documents to them if appropriate.

When you meet with a recommender, initiate a candid conversation about the personal attributes that you’d like them to highlight as well as other facts to include. Don’t ask them if they’ll permit you to remind them of submission deadlines because they might say no. Go ahead and remind them, just don’t over-do it.

A Recommender’s Specialty Should Relate To Your Planned Major

 You’ll need two teacher LOR’s for most colleges. Your guidance counselor will also provide a LOR. Letters from teachers in core courses are preferred — math, science, English, social science, or foreign languages. It’s a good idea to elicit a letter from a teacher who specializes in your intended field of study. They may be able to offer evidence supporting your aptitude.

Some colleges require a LOR from a peer. Choose a peer who can attest not only to your character but also to your accomplishments. Ask a current student at the targeted college, if possible. This person can describe your personality and interests in ways that tie them to the college. Some colleges allow you to submit a LOR from an outside recommender such as a college summer course teacher, coach, pastor, leader of a volunteer organization, or your manager at a job. Handle these letters the same way you would one from a teacher.

Recommenders Should Know You Well

 What makes LOR’s so challenging is that you don’t know exactly what a person who agrees to submit a letter will actually write. For best results, get to know your preferred recommenders early in junior year to enable you to build a rapport with them.

Junior year rather than senior year teachers are considered by AO’s to be the ones who know you best because they taught you for a full academic year. By starting early in junior year, you’ll be able to influence your preferred teachers to write LOR’s that mesh with the same core message that’s in your essays, personal statements, and interviews.

Many colleges will accept and review more than their required minimum number of LOR’s. If you have an opportunity to do this and haven’t already done so, request a LOR from an English teacher. AO’s know that competent writing is a key to success in all majors.

Set up a 10-minute in-person or virtual meeting with your guidance counselor twice a year because he or she will also be submitting a LOR. Use this opportunity to keep them up to date on your plans and progress and ask for their advice. Provide them with copies or uploads of documents which they may not have that can help your case for admission.

Don’t be intimidated by the logistical problems caused by remote learning. Remember that online meetings with teacher/recommenders are far more convenient for them than in-person meetings. I advise you to arrange for ready access to a digital scanner. You’ll need it to convert paper documents of interest to recommenders into electronic documents that can be attached to emails.

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