The College Conversation: Representing yourself well to universities

Now is the time when seniors must add college recommendation letters to their long list of admissions requirements.

The University of California and California State University systems do not require, recommend or read letters of rec., so don't send any; they'll immediately be thrown in the nearest trash can.

However, private and out-of-state colleges normally require them as part of the application process.

In October, teachers get slammed with requests to write letters. English teachers take on the brunt, often writing more than 50 letters a year. You'll certainly hear from teachers that they'll cap the number of letters they choose to write, and many will do so in order to write very personalized and authentic letters for those students who they believe have the most potential. It's easy to write about a student who made a positive impact in class, and painful to write letters about students they barely know.

But just who should be asked to write letters on your behalf in the first place? Many students and parents believe coaches and mentors would write the most impactful letters. This is not what college admissions officers want. They want to know what you've looked like in the classroom — how you learn, how you participate, how you treat others, and if you're just plain "nice" and a "good kid." They want to understand how you'll contribute to their campuses academically.

Ideally, the two academic letters should come from your junior year teachers in the foundational subject areas. It is wise to get an English teacher if you are declaring a major that is humanities. Same goes for those wanting to study science or math based areas; it is best to request letters from teachers in those areas. If you are applying to an art or music school, then, and only then, you might include a letter from a teacher in that particular discipline.

So, if colleges really want letters from your junior year teachers, why should younger students set the stage now for that defining moment when they graciously request letters for their teachers?

Most importantly, since teachers are often asked to change what grade level they teach (i.e. sophomore teachers moving to junior level, etc.), you never know ahead of time if your freshman year teacher will wind up being your junior year teacher. The impression you give off early often sticks with a teacher for years. Of course, if you were a goof-off your freshman year and change your ways as you mature, that's a good thing too.

But keep in mind that teachers talk. Disrespecting teachers, and being a downright tough kid to teach, influences negative chatter in the teacher's lounge.

Another letter of recommendation that is mandatory, again at most private and some out of state colleges, is one from your high school counselor. With student-to-counselor ratios at 500:1, how on earth will your counselor be able to write a compelling letter about you? The answer is, sadly, they won't. Cutting and pasting from earlier letters they've written has become commonplace.

The student's job (not the parent's) is to make himself or herself known to his or her high school counselor. Drop in every once in a while or make appointments to just chat about life, your activities, and ultimately where you are choosing to apply. If you solely get to know your counselor in 10-minute increments complaining about teachers and demanding schedule changes, you'll leave a bad taste in his or her mouth.

Seniors, please don't wait until the last minute to request these letters. It's unfair to your teachers and counselor, and downright disrespectful. Remember that kindness matters, and since these educators are writing the letter for you, not your parent, all requests should come directly from the student. Oh, and a thank you card and gift card when it's all said and done always helps, too.

LISA McLAUGHLIN is the founder and executive director of EDvantage Consulting Inc., an independent college admission counseling firm in South Orange County. Her column runs on Saturdays. Please send college admissions questions to Lisa@EDvantageConsulting.com.

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