Oberlin Blogs

Recs for Rec Letters

August 28, 2023

Molly Cravens, Office of Admissions

I’m not sure where the summer went, but with fall right around the corner, I wanted to do a quick entry on a topic we get a lot of questions about: Letters of Recommendation.

Why are these letters important? Admissions officers use them to help us get to know applicants from someone else’s perspective. They help us answer questions like:

  • Does this student complete their assignments on time?
  • Do they participate in class discussions?
  • How are they contributing to the classroom environment?

Each college or university is different in terms of how many letters they’re looking for. Most will ask for two letters, but some may want one or three. Pay careful attention to the application requirements for each school on your list.

These letters matter! So put some thought into who you ask and why. To help you through this process, here are my best recs for getting good recs:

  1. Generally speaking, schools prefer letters from teachers who taught you in your junior or senior year. Why? 14-year-old and 17-year-old you likely look a little different. You’ve grown since the beginning of high school, and we want the most up-to-date information about you. A letter from your third grade teacher is nice, but not at all helpful.* The only time I would say it’s okay to ask a sophomore-year teacher is if they taught you an AP or IB course.
  2. Get letters from teachers of core academic subjects: English, math, science, social studies, or foreign language (or an AP/IB class). These are going to provide the most relevant insight for us to get to know you as a student in the classroom. I was the quintessential “band kid” in high school and had a very close relationship with my band teacher. I’m sure he could’ve written me a great recommendation, but since I wasn’t pursuing a major in music, I didn’t ask him. Unless you’re applying to a Bachelor’s of Music or Bachelor’s of Fine Arts program, letters from band teachers, choir directors, art teachers, etc. are generally considered supplemental and don’t fulfill the application requirements. Letters from family members are never a good idea.* (If you’re homeschooled, a parent has to send in a letter on behalf of your schooling program. If this is you, make sure that your academic letters of recommendation come from non-family members.).
  3. The most effective recommendations will come from the teachers who know you the best, even if your best grades aren’t in their classes. Maybe AP Biology wasn’t your jam and you came out with a B-. If that teacher can speak to how you consistently sought out extra help, worked to improve your study habits, and never gave up, those are all great things that we want to hear about!* 
  4. More is not better! Most colleges require one or two letters because that is enough to help us get to know you. If you want to submit more, ask yourself “What can this additional person say about me that hasn’t already been covered?” Because if you solicit 10* recommendations, by the time I get to #10, I will be (1) reading redundant information that was likely in letters 1-9 and (2) very cranky. Admissions officers have a lot of reading to do when reviewing applications. Please respect our time and don’t overload us with unnecessary material.
  5. Ask your teacher in person, with as much notice as possible. The most popular psychology teacher at my high school probably wrote about 75 letters for students in my class year! You’ll get the best letter if you give your recommender ample time to write about you. Asking the day before an application deadline is a no-no.*

*Yes, this has happened.

Finally, say thank you! Thank your teacher when they agree to write you a letter, when they submit it, and when you share the exciting news of where you’ve been admitted and where you’re going to enroll. Want extra bonus points? Send them an actual thank-you note!

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