A Note of Introduction from AdmissionsDaniel: Here it is, the third post in our series of guest entries about parts of the admissions application. Former Admissions Office intern and JHU Class of 2009 alum Rena Barch tackles the topic of letters of recommendation. Heed her advice here as it echoes what all the admissions counselors at Hopkins have to say about recommendation letters.
I graduated from Hopkins in the spring of 2009. Throughout my senior year and the summer after I graduated I worked as the Office of Undergraduate Admissions intern. As the intern, I gave information sessions, conducted perspective interviews, and helped with general office tasks. I was the indentured servant to the Admissions office, and in the meantime learned a lot about the Admissions process. Now that I have paid off my dues, I will be headed of the London School of Economics to pursue a master’s degree in Comparative Politics. Before I depart though I thought I would share some advice and thoughts about letters of recommendation.
The process of applying to college can seem like a daunting task. There appear to be so many different things to keep track of. This process can become particularly stressful when you have to rely on other people to submit components such as recommendations. However, the process of asking for recommendations is one that you are likely to have to repeat many times for internships, jobs, or graduate schools, so now is the best time to master it!
The first part of asking for a recommendation is deciding who you would like writing on your behalf. For Johns Hopkins, we require one from a guidance counselor and one from a teacher of your choice. When deciding which teacher to ask, think about who you think will be most able to speak positively about you. If there’s a teacher you are particularly close with, they should be an obvious first choice. Don’t just pick a teacher based on the grade you received in their class or because they teach the subject closest to your future major. If there’s a teacher with whom you’ve built a relationship, and that teacher does not fall into either of those two categories, they are still a superior choice. Your grades already say enough about your performance in those classes. We don’t need to hear a teacher repeat those facts. What we prefer to hear are details about you as a student, about your work habits, about your presence in class. Try to pick a teacher who could provide this kind of information for you.
With your guidance counselor recommendation, you do not have as much freedom to select the source of the recommendation. This could be worrying to some of you who attend larger schools where you and your guidance counselor might not be well acquainted. Even if you do not know your counselor well, do not be afraid to request that they discuss a particular event or situation in your recommendation. If you had some sort of extenuating circumstance that led to a particularly weak semester, or if you had a scheduling conflict which prevented you from taking a course that you wish you could have, ask that they mention those events. Overall, the guidance counselor recommendation is intended to provide your admissions counselor with some context on the student in the perspective of their school. In this recommendation, we don’t need to know as much about your presence in class, as your presence in the school.
Furthermore, if you feel that your guidance counselor cannot adequately speak about your strengths, you have the option of submitting up to two additional recommendations. If you choose to submit additional recommendations, try to refrain from simply selecting another teacher unless both teachers have a unique perspective to provide. Also, definitely refrain from parent or peer recommendations. A better source of a recommendation would be an advisor from an extracurricular activity, a sports coach, or a boss from a part time job. Select someone who knows you well enough to write about your strengths and your personality. The additional recommendations should provide supplemental perspectives by offering a different side of you.
So now you’ve chosen who to ask for your recommendation. What next? To make this process run smoothly, never forget that: 1) Your recommender is doing you a favor. 2) To stay organized! First, make sure you ask your teacher. Do not assume that the teacher you have in mind will say yes. Teachers, especially those that tend to teach primarily juniors and seniors, may quickly have too many recommendations requests on their hands. You will want to ask early. Also, be sure to give them plenty of time to write and send the recommendation! As a precaution you should ask at least six weeks in advance.
Secondly, be prepared to give them all the information they might need. I would suggest compiling a folder for each recommender. In the folder should be any forms that he/she will need. Make sure to fill out any of your personal information, or other information they might not know. Also in the folder, include your resume or a copy of your transcript if you have one available. Remembering that the teacher is doing you a favor, you are going to want to make the process as easy for them as possible. The teacher should not have to include anything other than the recommendation. Therefore, you should include an addressed and stamped envelope. There’s also an option to submit the recommendations online, and that’s an option that should be offered to your teacher. Perhaps most importantly, include a list of any deadlines that your recommender will need to abide by.
Once your chosen teacher agrees to write your recommendation, present them with your folder. Ask if there is any additional information that they would like to have, and make sure to turn those supplements in as soon as you can. A week or two before any of your deadlines, you should check in with your recommender and kindly remind them of any approaching deadlines. While checking in can be useful for you and your teacher, make sure you give your teacher time to complete the recommendation. They are busy people, and they might not be able to write and send your recommendation by the next night, or even the next week.
Finally, after all of your recommendations have been submitted, do not forget to thank your recommenders. Small gifts or tokens of appreciation are nice but not necessary. Often just a thank you card will do the trick. Let your recommenders know that you appreciate their time! If you stay organized and show gratitude, your teacher, advisor, coach, or guidance counselor will be more willing to write you recommendations in the future.
Editor's Note: For additional information about letters of recommendation and an opportunity to ask your own questions check out the Letters of Recommendation discussion on the Hopkins Forums.