52 Weeks to College — Week 10: Working with Your Recommenders

Now that your senior year has started, it's time to line up the third parties who are your key allies in the application process: your recommenders. Your core recommendations typically come in the form of a school report from your school-based college counselor and two academic recommendations from your teachers. (The number of teacher recommendations might vary among your colleges.) Recommendations make a difference, and it is up to you to make sure that the recommendations you get will make a positive difference for you and influence the admissions officer in your favor.

Week 10 To-Dos

This Week and Every Week

  • Check your email, voicemail, texts, and snail mail for any communications that relate to applying to college. Read them and take whatever action is necessary.
  • Update your parents about what you’re doing. This regular communication will work wonders in your relationship with your parents during this stress-filled year.  

This Week 

  • Finalize your second application. Finalizing is the crucial last step before submission.
  • Continue working on supplementary materials. Supplementary materials are portfolios, audition materials, research abstracts, and the like. Note: very few of you should have this to-do on your list because you are following Week 4's advice about exhibiting restraint when it comes to these kinds of materials.
  • Check the websites of colleges on your list to see if and when admissions/college representatives will be coming to your school, your community, or a place near your home. Note these visits on your calendar and do your best to connect with the admissions representatives then.
  • Set up a meeting with your school counselor:  If you haven't already met with your counselor, do that now.
  • Secure your teacher recommendations: Confirm your individual colleges' requirements for teacher recommendations (how many and in which subjects) and make appointments to meet with your recommenders if you haven't already done so at the end of 11th grade. Look out for specific requirements that might influence whom you ask to be a recommender. Ask for any scholarship recommendations at the same time.
  • Draft your second scholarship application.
  • Check whether there are new scholarship opportunities. Add the deadlines to your calendar and block out time to work on them.
  • Secure any recommendations necessary for scholarships. You can ask for these at the same time that you ask for your application recommendations.
  • Prep for your upcoming standardized tests. In Week 6, you made a test prep schedule for yourself. It will only work if you work it! So go to it. 

Tips & Tricks

  1. Help your counselor help you. Admissions officers place a lot of weight on what school counselors have to say about an applicant in the school report, and a negative report can be the kiss of death. What the admissions officer learns from the school report will have a direct bearing on your academic rating by the admissions officer. In other words, your school counselor is an important ally in the process, so respect the role he plays. Follow the rules and work within the system (your counselor is bound by school policies as much as you are), give your counselor as much lead time as possible, and take any opportunity to let the counselor get to know you. You can read more advice about the school report, including specific tips for international students and homeschoolers, in chapter 18 of our book.
  2. Choose recommenders who can help you tell your story best. Go back to your story that you wrote in Week 3. Although you don’t always have a choice when it comes to your recommenders, when you do have a choice, you want to choose the recommenders who can help you tell your story best. Pick recommenders who know you well, who can speak about your positives and negatives based on direct experience, and who like you. If you have significant negatives to overcome (very low grades, a disciplinary or criminal record), choose at least one recommender who can address these negatives either because of the recommender’s position or because of the recommender’s knowledge of and experience with you. Read more tips about choosing and working with recommenders in chapter 19 of our book.
  3. Waive access to your recommendations. Under the law, you have the right to see your recommendations (and all other application materials that remain in your student record) after you have been admitted to and enroll in a college, unless you waive that right. The recommendation forms give you an opportunity to waive your rights to access. Typically, the only reason applicants decline to waive access is when applicants are concerned about what the recommender might say and want to discourage the recommender from saying anything negative. That creates a new and equally serious problem: a recommendation that will not have much heft. When you do not waive access, you are not only sending a signal to the recommender, you are also sending a signal to the admissions officer, who might conclude that this recommendation cannot be fully trusted because the recommender could not be completely frank. Choose a different recommender instead.
  4. Be prepared for visits from college representatives. It's fine to treat these visits from school reps as an information-gathering exercise on your part rather than an official interview. You don't have to sell yourself overtly, but be mindful that any contact you have with a school representative (whether an admissions officer, an alum, an administrator, or the secretary answering the phone) will make an impression that could affect the final admissions decision. You want to come across as an applicant who has done her homework about the college that is visiting your turf, and express genuine interest in that college. You want those college reps to leave feeling excited about the prospect of receiving an application from you.


About the Authors:

Alison Cooper Chisolm heads the college admissions consulting practice at Ivey Consulting. She came to private consulting after working in admissions for more than 10 years at three selective universities (Southern Methodist University, University of Chicago, and Dartmouth College).

Anna Ivey is the former Dean of Admissions at the University of Chicago Law School and founded Ivey Consulting to help college, law school, and MBA applicants navigate the admissions process and make smart choices about higher education.

You can find more college admissions tips in their book How to Prepare a Standout College Application (Wiley, August 2013), and follow them on Twitter and Facebook

About the 52 Weeks to College Series:

52 Weeks to College is a week-by-week plan for applying to college. It breaks this complex and difficult project down into weekly to-do lists with supporting tips and tricks for getting it all done. Based on the Master Plan for applying to college found in our book, How to Prepare a Standout College Application, 52 Weeks to College is designed for any applicant who intends to apply to top U.S. colleges. For those of you who are just discovering the 52 Weeks series and want to catch up, click here.