You’ve calculated your GPA, made it through the SATs, tackled a few college essays, and have a pretty clear picture of which extracurricular activities you’ll spotlight on your college application. You’re almost at the finish line!

But wait — what’s this about schools needing “letters of recommendation?” Who writes them? And do they really matter?

Absolutely, says Joan Franklin, college counselor at MI College Support on Mercer Island. These days, thanks in part to grade inflation, admissions committees often don’t see significant variances in applicants’ grades, she says. “Recommendation letters put a high school student’s performance in context with other students — and are a way to demonstrate attributes such as effort, leadership, collaboration and advocacy.”

Although most public universities — including the University of Washington and Washington State University — don’t require recommendation letters, private colleges typically ask for them, usually from one high school counselor and two teachers.

The counselor’s letter is “more like a floodlight,” says Kelly Herrington, director of college counseling and student services at University Prep in Seattle. He writes about 50 of them each year. As a counselor, he focuses on what students have done both in and out of the classroom, he says. “The teacher is more interested in what happens inside the classroom.”

And while colleges still consider grades, test scores and course-load rigor the most important admission factors, “the letter is the next thing,” says Herrington. For colleges, recommendation letters offer one more way to understand who an applicant is. “The more pieces of a student’s life you have, the more informed of a decision you can make,” he says.


Set yourself apart

Julie McCulloh oversees admissions at Gonzaga University in Spokane. Letters of recommendation are particularly helpful, she says, when they offer a perspective on a student’s growth or strengths. “A letter might address a student’s learning style, or explain how a student struggled in a subject but then was able to achieve his goals,” she says.

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Letters can also help distinguish a student from other applicants. “Let’s say a student is applying to the nursing program,” says McCulloh. “The teacher can speak to the student’s interest in anatomy — or his tenacity in going after the subject. These things can really help the student get a spot.”

What else might help applicants stand out? Letters that showcase a student’s intellectual curiosity, says Franklin. “Colleges want an exited learner who makes connections with additional learning,” she says. “This might be the student who says to the teacher, ‘I’m interested in studying more about genetics; who can I talk to about it?’”

How to ask

High school students looking for letters of recommendation often don’t know how to go about asking for them. Should they approach their favorite instructor? Ask the teacher who runs the class they’ve aced? Go for the “cool” teacher? Or should they ask the one with the best writing skills?

Franklin says figuring out which teachers to ask for recommendation letters is “the hardest part.” She advises students to find teachers who will speak to their strengths and character — and who will speak highly of them. “Think about the class where you’ve gone above and beyond, demonstrated leadership or collaboration, and ideally, were a standout student,” she says. If there’s no class that matches that description, she adds, choose the class that showcases your effort or growth.

Franklin suggests that students be direct — and assertive — when requesting letters. “Say to your teachers, ‘Can you write me a great letter?’ If the teacher says, ‘No, I’m booked,’ that can be code for ‘I can’t.’ ” But even if the teacher simply pauses or looks away, says Franklin, “I tell the kids to run for the hills. It hurts a student if they have a letter that’s very bland.”


And emailing or texting the teacher’ isn’t an effective way to procure a recommendation letter, says McCulloh. “It’s important to ask the teacher in person.”

Make sure to give teachers and counselors plenty of preparation time, she says.

“They can only write so many recommendation letters; it’s not a good idea to approach the teacher just days or weeks before you need one,” McCulloh says.

Give teachers information

Students should offer background and additional information about themselves to instructors and counselors who are writing letters, says Herrington. Tell them what you’ve liked about their class and give them language they can use. “You can even give them bullet points,” he says. “Help them help you.”

Rabbi Daniel Weiner, senior rabbi at Temple De Hirsch Sinai in Seattle, always asks for resumes or CVs from students who request letters of recommendation. He wants to know what they’d like him to focus on, what their interests are, and how that might be relevant to the college community they are hoping to enter. “Students should strategize who they choose to write letters for them, and give that person a little direction so they can provide something that’s helpful,” he says. “The more deliberate and thoughtful you can be, the better.”

Weiner writes about character and maturity in his letters, or ways students have contributed to their communities. “I focus on things that are part of my area of expertise,” he says.

Those qualities are precisely what schools care most about, says Herrington. “Colleges like to hear anecdotes about students who are making a difference when nobody’s really looking,” he says. “They want to hear about the student who sits with her peers in the morning, tutoring them. Or the one who chats with the men and women working in the cafeteria.”

These descriptions offer insight into a student’s personality, mindset and emotional IQ, Herrington says. “This is a way recommendation letters can really have an impact.”