As students are working on their applications, I feel that there is a lot of strategizing that goes into applying in the “right” way.  One of these strategies that I’ve heard prospective students mention is getting lots of recommendation letters or getting certain key letters. As an admission counselor and relatively recent college applicant (only four years ago!), I’d like to take some time to offer my own advice on recommendation letters.

Just to clarify, Northwestern only requires two letters: one from a guidance counselor and one from a teacher. Any additional letters are supplemental.

When I asked certain teachers and mentors for recommendation letters, I did my best to ask those who knew me well. This may seem like an obvious and unnecessary statement, but I think it can be overlooked. I did not go to the teacher who gave me perfect scores on my assignments or the ones who taught courses with impressive sounding titles. Instead, I asked teachers who had challenged me and given me projects that required going in to ask extra questions. These teachers could write about more than how I scored on their tests (which my high school transcript already said, anyway). To use one example, one of my English teachers asked students to meet with her before she wrote her recommendation letters. Since I knew her well, in our meeting we mostly just talked about how I was doing since taking her course. We reminisced about some of the projects I had worked on and the books that we had read in her class. It was more of a casual conversation than anything else. I left the meeting feeling confident I had selected the right person.

I really think that going to those people to whom you have naturally grown closer and gotten to know is the best way to go. Don’t worry too much if this is the teacher of the hardest, most advanced class or if they were a teacher who taught a really engaging intro-level class. You don’t need to overthink it. Through reflection, you’ll have a pretty good idea of who can best advocate for you. Also, be sure to thank the recommender!

–Jason Smith

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