Letters of recommendation (LORs) are incredibly important for colleges to get a good sense of who you are from the perspective of someone who has worked with you for a long period of time.
- Spend a fair amount of time figuring out who would be the best people to write you recommendations (especially those that have worked with you in your later years, i.e. 11th grade). Colleges want to know about the current version of you, so a recommendation from a 9th grade teacher isn't advisable, unless they've taught you for multiple years, or you've worked with them in some capacity afterwards.
- The people you pick should know you well and be able to highlight aspects of you that aren't already mentioned in your application. There's no need for them to rehash your awards unless they have a unique perspective on them. Instead the focus should be on your aptitude as a student or projects or dedication to a particular activity, etc. Admissions officers are specifically looking for information they can't already find on your application elsewhere — try to figure out what this may be for you.
- Aim for one letter from a math or science teacher and another from a liberal arts teacher (history, language, government / economics, etc.). As an added bonus, it's sometimes helpful to include a supplemental recommendation from another field, like your employer, extra-curricular activity coach/mentor, research advisor or internship director. Sometimes you may be unsure if a particular teacher would be able to write you a strong recommendation — in that case it's totally fine to just ask them if they think it would be a good fit. You'd much rather get the honest answer from them before rather than a weak letter later. If your recommender is truly excited about you, it shows in the type of language they use in their letter.
- How should you ask your teacher/extracurricular advisors for your letter? It's best to ask in person while giving them an easy option to opt out (as mentioned above). If you can't ask in person, then write a polite email. Here's a sample template you can use:
Hope this email finds you well. I've begun applying to colleges, and was wondering if you could write me a letter of recommendation for <<College Name>>. They recommend on their website:
"If you feel an extra recommendation would show an important additional side of you not already covered, you may send in an additional letter of recommendation...Some helpful extra recommendations we've seen have come from research mentors."
I would be very grateful if you could talk about the research (& programming) skillsets I gained while working on X project. You could also touch upon the specifics of my work such as (X, Y, and Z).
Your recommendation would be held in high esteem for my college application, though I totally understand that you're super busy and may not be able to write the letter. Thank you so much in advance. I'll see you on Friday!
Note: The email mentions why the extra recommendation is necessary, and some talking points. It gives the person a way out without making it too awkward. For me, my internship/research advisor wrote about how I was able to apply my programming skills to neuroscience research, and since I'd worked with him for a year, he could talk about other parts of my personality and professional work that might not necessarily show up in other parts of the application.
- Make sure your recommenders have enough time to write your letters. Note that they will likely have lots of requests coming in, so you want to give them plenty of time to write you a thoughtful recommendation. On the same note, make it easy for them to submit your recommendation by providing them an addressed, and stamped envelope to the various colleges. Let them also know about any impending deadlines.