You’ve done the hard work at school, and you’ve made a good start on your college applications. But you’re not done yet. Now you have to get teachers to write you letters of recommendation. That might feel a little intimidating, but don’t worry. Your teachers are expecting you to ask for recommendations, and they’ve done this before. Let’s walk through the process of getting your teacher recommendations done so you can keep your college application process moving forward smoothly.
Which Teacher Should You Ask for a Recommendation?
Typically you ask your teachers for recommendations at the start of your senior year. But that doesn’t mean you should be asking your 12th grade teachers for recommendations. After all, you may have only known them for a month or so, and they don’t know much about you, either.
Instead, look back over your 10th and 11th grade teachers. Which teachers did you connect with best? Which classes did you do well in? Were you involved in any extracurricular activities that these teachers supervised? Those are the teachers you want on your short list for your recommendation letters.
And here’s the secret about asking 10th and especially 11th grade teachers: They know how to write good letters of recommendation. They write a lot of them — probably dozens every year — so they’ve got the skills and experience to make you look great. In addition, these teachers can speak to your recent history as a high school student — something that matters to college admissions committees.
Before you make your final decisions, though, take a look at the colleges you’re applying to, in case they have special requirements. Some colleges require that your letters come from teachers only in core academic subjects (English, math, science, social science and foreign language, usually). If that’s the case, they won’t even consider that letter from your journalism teacher, even if you were editor-in-chief of your school paper.
On the flip side, if you’re applying to a specialized program, the admissions folks there may want to see those specialized recommendations. So go ahead and ask your music teacher to write that recommendation about your time in orchestra when you’re applying for a music degree — But read the fine print, because the college probably wants all those academic teachers’ recommendations as well.
Strive for some diversity in your recommendations. If you’re a great STEM student, your favorite teachers might be your 10th and 11th grade math teachers. But if you ask both of them for recommendations, you’re sending your colleges a message that all you’re good at or interested in is math.
What do you do about those extra recommendations — your church youth leader, your band director, your volleyball coach, your boss? Again, check the requirements for each college. Some will welcome these recommendations. Others will refuse to read them. Design your overall recommendation strategy before you start asking for letters.
Through this whole decision-making process, your best friend is your high school counselor, if you have one. They can tip you off as to which teachers write great recommendations and encourage you to reach out to teachers you might not have had at the top of your list.
What Do You Want the Letter to Say?
Here’s the good news: You can help determine what your letters of recommendation say about you. Do this by creating a “brag sheet” that reminds your teachers who you are, what you want out of college and out of life, and what you’ve accomplished in high school.
And yes, it’s okay to brag. Don’t assume that your academic teachers are aware of the time you brought the house down in the school musical or the tenacity you showed on the swim team. (Remember, they write dozens of recommendations each year, so cut them some slack.) Remind them with your brag sheet.
What should your brag sheet contain? Start with your academic history. Your teachers already have access to your grades, but mention specific projects or papers that were meaningful or challenging to you, and talk about what you learned from them. Brag about achievements that are related to school but didn’t happen in the classroom — your triumphs at the state science fair, mock trial, or artistic festivals.
Include some information about your college hopes and goals. Are you aiming for a specific major? Do you have a dream school? Are you already thinking past college to med school, business school or an MFA? Mention all of this in your brag sheet. Your teachers may also find it helpful if you include a copy of your Common App personal statement and any other essays, so they can make sure what they write about you dovetails with what you’re already saying about yourself.
How Do You Ask a Teacher for a Letter?
Don’t be nervous about asking for letters of recommendation. Here’s a little-known secret: Your favorite teachers are expecting you to ask. In fact, they might be disappointed if you didn’t ask for a letter.
But you still have to do it the right way. The no. 1 rule for asking for your letter of recommendation: Give your teachers plenty of time. It’s not a bad idea to raise the question at the end of your junior year, but you’ll just have to ask again in the Fall, when you’re ready to hand over your brag sheet. Some teachers feel they can only write a certain number of recommendations each year, so asking early gets you on their list.
If you delay in asking, a few things can happen — and none of them are on your “I want” list. Your teacher may feel that they were your second choice and not be motivated to write a great letter. They may simply run out of time to write the solid letter you want (and you know who else has a lot of experience with recommendation letters? The admissions people who read them — and they can always tell when a letter is rushed).
Approach your teachers in person whenever possible to make the ask. Be prepared with your brag sheet as well as any paperwork you need them to fill out. If letters have to be mailed in, provide stamped envelopes with the forms. Often letters of recommendations are handled completely online — but you should still hand over a list of all the colleges you’re applying to with the links to the college web pages where your teachers will file their recommendations.
And one of the most important things you can provide: A list of deadlines. Teachers and counselors work hard to get letters out responsibly, but they have a lot of letters to write, and you want to make sure you don’t miss deadlines and imperil your application.
Wrap up your whole recommendation letter experience with a thank you note or email to the teachers who went out of their way to give you a hand — and don’t forget to notify them (and say thank you again!) once you get that acceptance letter.