Pop quiz: How much do teachers get paid for each recommendation letter?
Answer: They don’t.
The people who agree to write you a letter of recommendation are doing you a huge favor. They do it because they think you are amazing and want to see you succeed, no doubt, but the request should not be casual or taken lightly.
I recently listened to the dean of a very selective southern college tell a group of college counselors that if students don’t have great recommendations, it’s their own fault. Harsh? Yes, a bit, but there is also truth in this statement. Here’s how colleges see it:
Here is our guide to getting great letters of recommendation:
STEP 1: Whom to Ask
You first need to start with a perusal of your colleges’ requirements for letters of recommendation. Some schools (we are looking at you, University of North Texas) don’t need them or want them as they are not used in their review process which is largely based on your grades and test scores. Other schools like Davidson and Dartmouth like to see a letter from a peer. Even others, such as Baylor, might value a letter of recommendation from a youth pastor or minister. As a generalization, and allowing for individual preferences by certain colleges, we recommend this:
Whom NOT to Ask
When to Ask
Ask your teachers and counselor at the end of your junior year (we recommend after the craziness of AP testing is done but before the last two weeks of school). This does not mean they need to, or even should be expected to, write the letter before the year is done. Rather, it is a polite way of starting a conversation with them about your desire to have them support your college application bids. It is an opportunity to tell them where you are applying, what you want to study, and why you are asking them for their support. It allows them ample heads up that you will be adding them into your applications over the summer so they aren’t surprised when they see an email in their inbox saying you’ve added them to your Common Application when it goes live in August (over the summer, before anyone is back at school). You can ask in the fall, and many teachers (and counselors) will tell you to come back then. However, I strongly suggest an end of junior year polite foray into a conversation about your desire to have them write the letter on your behalf.
How to Ask
Always ask in person. Make a specific appointment to sit down with them to have a real conversation about your request. Don’t make this casual or in passing. Treat the request with the degree of importance you would like them to also give to your letter. Email them to make an appointment to sit down for 15 to 20 minutes to talk about all the reasons they are awesome, what you’ve learned from them, the ways you have also been awesome while in their presence, and where you are planning to apply to college.
What to Give Them
Our students make “recommendation packets” for each person that writes them a letter. These take time and thought to prepare. Remember the effort you put into the request should reflect the effort you would like to receive in turn.
This is one of the planning tools we use with our students to help them create their Recommender Packets. Print this and fill it out to help you plan your own.
Here are example Recommender Guides from a student who had very successful recommendation letters that were effective in the admissions process.
And here is a resume template you might find useful, as well.
A Final Note
At the end of the process, remember to say thank you. You are off on an exciting (and challenging!) journey. You can tackle it bit by bit, and be sure to send thanks to those people along the way who support you and help you launch into this next amazing chapter of your life.
Giving dynamic and inspiring presentations is one of our most favorite pastimes here at Guru. We have the wonderful privilege of giving a presentation tonight to an LISD high school for the lower grades, and we know there are lots of parents who won't be there tonight who would love this information, too! The information below is the handout that goes with this presentation. Happy learning and thinking!
1. Support your student in choosing challenging but appropriate classes.
1. Settle in to 2-3 activities. Encourage quality and being really invested in a few clubs/activities instead of having a minor role in many activities.
4. Take the PSAT in October. Use is as a benchmark, and don’t stress too much about the results. Colleges do not see the PSAT scores – they are just a tool to help your student begin to familiarize himself/herself with standardized testing and understand strengths and weaknesses in content knowledge.
5. Consider an academic summer program.
On Monday the LISD Board of Trustees voted to approve a change to its class rank policy. All students outside the top 10% will have to choose whether or not they would like rank included or excluded from the materials the school sends to colleges. This will begin with the class of 2019.
The decision is motivated by a desire to encourage colleges to use a more holistic review for every student by making decisions on factors outside of just GPA and class rank. In other Texas districts, removing rank has resulted in significant increases in the percentages of students outside the top 10% accepted to A&M and UT.
However, as more Texas districts have shifted to no-rank systems, UT, A&M, and other in-state public colleges have devised their own systems to approximate rank when none is given. This is out of necessity: A&M, for example, received 35,494 applications in 2017 for freshman admission. At that volume, the admissions staff cannot read every application. Large public colleges often rely on algorithms that use numerical data to provide information that constitutes the bulk of an admissions decision. Removing rank creates a whole in that system, and the college has to patch it as best as possible. For some students, this might be helpful, but for others it will be hurtful.
The district has explained the decision as also being motivated to discourage students from playing the "GPA game" -- taking classes for the sole purpose of boosting their GPA, and rank, instead of because the class best matches their goals and objectives. This policy change, coupled with the lesser weight for AP and PAP classes voted on last December, is a step in the right direction for that end. I have long bemoaned the GPA game as well, but since Texas public schools cannot get rid of the top 10% rankings, I'm not sure how much this disincentives students as so many are playing the game to get into that upper-echelon of the decile scale.
I have two questions I have asked about this change, using the form created for questions.
1. When do students have to make a decision about whether or not they want rank included on their transcripts?
2. Can students opt to have rank excluded for some colleges but included for others?
The college admission landscape is so diverse that what might be advantageous at one school for admission might be disadvantageous for another, especially when scholarships hinge on class rank percentages. I see many students on my current roster who would most benefit from the choice of having rank excluded for their application to UT or A&M, but included for scholarship purposes at other schools, such as St. Edward's, Texas Tech, or Texas State.
I'm looking forward to reviewing more information as it becomes available and I welcome your comments, questions, or concerns as this policy change relates to the broader world of college admission.
Questions? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
One of the things I love most about what I do with students is that we learn so many things together. Yes, we learn about building a smart college list, and how to put together an excellent resume, and what types of essays make a committee applaud. But we also learn so great life skills: how to address an envelope and where the stamp goes (this one kills me – technology has really changed communication!), how to understand debt in the context of projected future earnings, and how to write a professional email to an admissions officer, dean of an honors college, or professor.
There are quite a few reasons why you might find the need to email your admissions officer. These include:
There is a good chance you will find yourself needing to email several admissions officers or college faculty in the course of your college planning process, but many students are stumped with how to do this. We’ve put together a little guide to help (life skills are where it’s at!).
First, let’s get one thing out of the way: The email has to come from the student, sound like a student wrote it, and be responded to by the student. Mom and Dad, definitely help and guide, but students have to own their process and be in charge of their communication. Colleges expect this and might flag an applicant’s file if there is too much evidence the student is not college-ready or independent enough yet to handle the college environment.
Here’s an outline of how to do this:
ii.Meeting request during campus visit
iii.Checking on application status – CAID 975674
iv.Inquiry: Ability to double major in CS and Electrical Engineering
Here are a couple real example emails students have sent recently.
Dear Mr. Pederson,
My name is Firstname Lastname and I will be touring SMU this Friday. I'm emailing you to ask if there is a class I could sit in on, preferably an intro to journalism class or any class involved in the Fashion Media major. Going into SMU the Fashion Media major is what I would like to pursue and I would like to see a preview on how the classes interact and the involvement of the students. Thank you for your consideration!
Hello Mr. Jackson,
My name is Firstname Lastname from Flower Mound High School here in North Texas. I wanted to give you my thanks for hand-writing that postcard in regards to my acceptance to KU! That alongside the notification of the KU Distinctions Scholarship really meant a lot to me.
I went to the NorTex College Fair in Denton that The University of North Texas hosted, and I had the opportunity of meeting Allyson Peters! She was extremely helpful and gave me a lot of useful information.
I wanted to point out something I discussed with her: The KU Excellence Scholarship. I had mentioned that I have taken the ACT exam three separate times, and that my highest score was a 26, which qualifies me for the Distinction scholarship. Would it be wise to take the ACT exam a fourth time to try and score a 28? The lady at the college fair mentioned that I could email you if I scored a 27, and while my tests superscore up to a 27, I'm aware that you guys don't superscore. Getting the Distinction scholarship is such an honor, but knowing that I'm still on the college search, should I take it one final time to see if I can raise it up higher than my past three exams?
Thanks so much!
These both sound very much like high school students because they were written by high school students. We as adults might look at a phrasing here or there and want to correct it, but resist that urge. These are great – they are authentic, they reflect the student’s actual questions, and they communicate very professionally in the way that a 17 year old would communicate professionally.
Guide your students to learn to write great emails and communicate well on behalf of themselves. Empower them by giving them examples and offering to review their work and give them feedback. And encourage them to reach out to build rapport to do the best job they can in their college planning process.
Questions? Email me at email@example.com
Hello senior students and parents!
By now, you have likely heard about the FAFSA, or Free Application for Federal Student Aid. The FAFSA will open on October 1st, so this is a one month heads up so you can be prepared and ready to file when it opens. I'm going to use this email as an explanation of what the FAFSA is, when to file it, what to have ready, etc.
What it is: "FAFSA stands for Free Application for Federal Student Aid. This form is used to determine the amount of money a family is expected to contribute to the price of attending a postsecondary institution. The results of the FAFSA are used in determining student grants, work study, and loan amounts."
Why it's important: Filing the FAFSA is important, regardless of whether or not you think you will qualify for financial aid. It's well worth your time to do so (plus it's easy, so no excuses). After you file the FAFSA (and have been accepted to a college), you will receive your formal financial aid offer. It's only then you will know how much your education is going to cost for that particular school (this is a reason you should consider waiting to accept an admissions offer until after you receive all financial aid offers if finances are an important part of the equation). The FAFSA also serves as the paperwork necessary to qualify for federal loans (all students, regardless of income, qualify for $5,500 in federal loans. This is a student loan in the student's name). The interest rate you will get is way better than the bank for these federal loans.
What can I do right now? There is no longer a PIN for the FAFSA; it has been replaced by what is called the FSA ID. The FSA ID is how you submit the FAFSA electronically. It serves as your certified digital signature. You can sign up for this now (and I recommend you do so). Both you and your student will need an FSA ID to complete the FAFSA. Only one parents needs an FSA ID. You can get that set up right now through this link: https://fsaid.ed.gov/npas/index.htm
When can I file the FAFSA? Starting October 1st, you will be able to use that FSA ID to complete the FAFSA. October 1 is the earliest you can complete the form (this is a much earlier deadline -- it used to be January 1. Parents who have filed before, take note!). I recommend doing it as soon after October 1st as possible. You do not need to have filed this year's taxes to complete the FAFSA. Instead, you'll be using tax information from the most recently filed tax year (this is also a relatively new change to the FAFSA, called Prior-Prior-Year. You can read more about that here). The important thing is filing early.
Where do I go to file the FAFSA? This is the link you can use to file the FAFSA starting in October: https://fafsa.ed.gov
What do I need to have ready?
If you have any questions about how to file the FAFSA, there are numerous free resources out there. Here is a link to a super in depth guide put out by a company called Edvisors, which specializes in college financial aid consulting. It's a terrific guide.
For nuanced or unique questions, I would consult the website finaid.org.
One more thing to be aware of with financial aid forms is that there are several colleges, especially private colleges, that require additional forms like the CSS profile or a university specific financial aid form. To check to see if any of your colleges require the CSS Profile (in addition to the FAFSA), you can check this link: https://profileonline.collegeboard.org/prf/PXRemotePartInstitutionServlet/PXRemotePartInstitutionServlet.srv
For every school to which you have applied, you should consult the school's financial aid webpage. Check the deadlines and requirements for each college.
I hope your fall is off to a great start. I am thankful for so many things, and working with awesome students and families is one of the most important in my life. I truly love what I do and I am honored and thankful to you for allowing me the opportunity.
Let us know if you have questions. We are always happy to be helpful.
I get it. It’s just barely August, and you aren’t ready to think about school yet. But there’s still that copy of Grapes of Wrath sitting on your nightstand to read before AP Lang and Comp starts up, and the school year will be here before you can say “Number 2 pencil,” so it’s time to be proactive!
Soon to be juniors and seniors: the next year will be full of a lot of college stuff for you (exciting!). One important part of those college plans should be a couple of college visits.
As we are coming off summer, many of you may be just returning from adventures at various campuses around the US (or even the world!). These are valuable in their own right, but a summertime college visit isn’t the same as a visit when the university is in session, so I have a suggestion for you to consider now, while you have plenty of time to plan for it.
Plan your campus visits for the next year (at least the fall) now. Whip out your high school’s academic calendar, and take a look at all the student holidays. Some of them are bound to be on random, non-holiday days. That’s what you are looking for!
The best campus visits allow you to do four things:
These are the four things I ask students to do AT MINIMUM when they visit a school. You can’t do some of these during the summer, or even on the weekend. This is why the best campus visits are taken during the weekday when school is in regular session.
Of course, it’s a pain in the booty to miss a day of school (just like it’s a pain in the booty to miss a day of work – this post is less helpful for the latter, but we have the school part covered!). So plan ahead by looking at the academic calendar and find those couple days in the school year where you have a school holiday but most colleges will be in regular session. Make a circle around them in 24 karat gold leaf, and then plan some visits.
LISD kiddos, for example, you have some awesome prime-visit real estate on the calendar October 9th and 10th (a Monday and a Tuesday!). Want to go see Vanderbilt? Book it! Tulane calling? Start Google mapping it now.
Here are some academic calendars for quick reference. Happy touring!
And one more pro tip: when you finish a visit, take time to write down EVERYTHING in DETAIL using a college visit reflection sheet. You can download ours for free right here.
We are a full-service academic advising and college planning team. We started up shop in 2013 because we are passionate about helping students pursue opportunities for elite higher education. Need help? Want to know more? (972) 755-9507