by Maya Abdel-Wadood

As junior year approaches its final days and the ever-looming cloud of college applications starts rolling in, it may come as a relief that there is one aspect of the process that is essentially someone else’s job to complete: the letter of recommendation. However, this relief is short-lived, as a new stressor creeps in – the question of who to ask for said recommendation (and how to do so).

It may appear pretty obvious at first. Of course you’re going to ask the PE teacher who sings your praise, or the English teacher who decorates your essays with satisfying As. It’s a no-brainer that you will steer clear of your math teacher, who witnessed your struggle to keep up at the beginning of the year.

Yet, as a recent graduate who faced this same dilemma not too long ago, I’ve learned that the obvious choice may not always be the ideal one. Your academic capabilities will be reflected by transcripts, test scores, and other objective data. Thus, when it comes to recommendations, the emphasis should be on portraying your character and highlighting the positive traits you can contribute to a university’s community. Here are a few questions to ask  yourself when deciding who should write your letter:

1. Have they seen you grow? Your A-granting English teacher may not be the greatest candidate if you don’t speak up much in class. On the other hand, the math teacher who observed your transformation from being unable to solve an integral to becoming a confident and competent mathematician can advocate for your resilience and determination.

Identify those teachers who can speak to your perseverance and growth. This is why teachers who have taught you for more than one year make especially good choices for writing letters of recommendation.

2. Have you put your best foot forward consistently? Be mindful that you are setting yourself up for a great recommendation from the moment you enter a teacher’s class. The depth and authenticity of your relationship will inevitably be reflected in their recommendation, and your application may suffer if it is generic and superficial. By nourishing meaningful relationships with your teachers, you will enable them to write strong recommendations with ease.

3. Do they know you beyond the classroom? I considered teachers who have seen me perform in settings beyond the classroom, such as my US History teacher, who served as the supervisor for multiple clubs that I was involved in. As such, she had a well-rounded grasp of my capabilities as a student as well as as a leader and teammate. 

4. Can they speak to your suitability for your planned major? I will preface this by saying that US colleges want letters of recommendation to come from teachers in your core classes: English, math, science, social studies, or world language. As long as you pick from one of these categories, it is not necessary to seek out teachers of classes related to your planned major. However, it can be an effective way to showcase your potential to thrive in your selected program. As an intended Biomedical Science major, I sought my second recommendation from my AP Biology teacher, who could testify to my competency in this field. Be warned, however, that if you haven’t invested time in getting to know them and putting your best foot forward in their class, it may result  in a recommendation that lacks dimension. I was particularly involved in AP Biology compared to my other classes, and dedicated time beyond the classroom to connect with my teacher about topics I may have struggled with, which made her a great candidate for recommendation-writing. I also participated heavily in class, contributing to group conversations and opting to complete extra-credit assignments.

Admissions teams rely on recommendations to provide a holistic view of the applicant, beyond grades and extracurricular activities, to ensure this person is driven and ready to take on college academics and contribute to college life. With this in mind, remember that the best teacher for the job may not be the one giving you top grades. Be sure to have an overall positive relationship with the person you have chosen to write your recommendation so that they, in turn, can write honestly about you, providing irrefutable evidence for why you are a strong candidate to attend whichever colleges you are applying to. 

Stay tuned for part two next month, covering how to effectively go about securing strong recommendations. 

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