Recommendations: Spend an Hour Now to Get Your Best Recommendations Next Fall

Most of you probably aren’t even thinking about college applications now. Instead you are focused on your end-of-year school work and standardized tests. And that is where you focus should be. That being said, I do encourage juniors to spend just a little bit of time thinking about their recommendations now. Why? Because thinking about your recommendations now is a way to work smarter, not harder. Invest an hour or so now and you’ll both save yourself at least two hours next fall (when time will be at a premium) and end up with better recommendations! Definitely the smarter way to go about things.

Here’s how I’d suggest you use that hour:

Educate yourself. (20 minutes)

There are a core set of recommendations that will be required in one combination or another for virtually every college that uses holistic admissions (a/k/a the selective colleges). That core set consists of a counselor recommendation (usually part of the school report) and one or two teacher recommendations. Before you do anything else related to recommendations, you read the recommendation forms these people are asked to complete so that you have a sense of what they are being asked to evaluate and comment upon. Download the Common App versions of these forms here.

Meet and/or check in with your college counselor at school (20 minutes).

Your college counselor will be writing one of your core recommendations (usually as a part of what is called the school report). If you haven’t met him or her yet, don’t end the school year without having done so! If you have met him or her, just do a quick check-in. Your goal in this meeting/check-in is to make sure that you are developing a good relationship with your counselor and that you’ve done everything that your school requires you to do to be on track with college applications.

Identify your likely teacher recommenders and consider whether you should ask them now. (20 minutes).

When it comes to teachers, admissions officers at top colleges are most interested in hearing from teachers who have taught you in a core academic subject — Language/Literature (English or other), Mathematics, Science, or History/Social Studies) — in 11th grade. In other words, the teachers you have now! Which two of these teachers would be your best recommenders? Since 11th grade teachers are often swamped with requests to write recommendations, it is not a bad idea to consider asking two of your teachers now if they would be willing to be recommenders for you next year. Ask now if you are sure that they will be your preferred recommenders OR if one or both are leaving the school at the end of this school year. Be sure and ask any teacher who is leaving for contact information that will be “good” after their departure (a cell phone number and a non-school email are best).

Alison Cooper Chisolm heads the college admissions consulting practice at Ivey College Consulting. She came to private consulting after working in admissions for more than 10 years at three selective universities (most recently at Dartmouth College). She works with students and families throughout the U.S. and abroad.  Alison is the co-author of the forthcoming book, "How to Prepare a Standout Application: Expert Advice that Takes You from LMO* to Admit." Follow Alison on Twitter (@IveyCollege)