Each and every year, we see students work tirelessly to achieve the best possible grades, steadily improve their test scores, ensure their extracurricular activities are up to pace, and craft winning college essays and supplements. There is, however, one part of the college application that’s often written off as beyond a student’s control: letters of recommendation.

Many students recognize that letters of recommendation have grown even more significant in the past few years, as the college admissions process has even more so emphasized the holistic student.  However, some students are surprised to find out that there’s some strategy that goes into asking for and securing meaningful recommendations from your teachers and guidance counselor.

Most schools ask for two letters of recommendation, in addition to your guidance counselor’s, and at least one of those should be from junior year. Many colleges will allow one letter from a sophomore year teacher. In this blog post, we’ll outline a few points to consider to help you secure the best recommendations possible for your college application.

Choose the right people

Ideally, your letters of recommendation should come from teachers who know you well. Think about the kinds of relationships you’ve built over the last few years (hint: if you’re still a 9th or 10 grader and reading this: start building those relationships now!). Which teachers have seen you grow the most? Who has seen your motivation, your drive, and/or your dedication? Remember: the teacher whom you ask does not necessarily need to teach the subject you are most successful at. In fact sometimes a teacher who’s witnessed your greatest struggles can also speak best to your grit and perseverance and work ethic (or something like that).  What’s most important is that they can speak to the quality of your character and your potential contributions to your prospective college or university.

It’s also important to keep in mind that schools are interested in your academic rigor – your recommenders should come from core academic subjects.  Try to diversify, if possible, to allow your recommendations to showcase your various strengths: for example, your English teacher knows things about you that your Chemistry teacher might not, and vice versa.  Think of your recommendation portfolio as a mini-application package: it should show who you are in the most holistic sense.

As you start to consider who you might ask, take a look at the Common App’s Teacher Evaluation form, below. You’ll notice that in addition to a long-form written evaluation, they also ask teachers to identify students’ strength relative to their peers. Keep these criteria in mind:

Ask early and ask well

It’s important to give your potential recommenders enough time, especially as you know that so many of your classmates are going to be making similar requests!  Try to ask for letters of recommendation as early as possible – ideally in the first couple of weeks of school of your senior fall.

Asking in-person is always ideal.  Make an appointment for their office hours, or ask if they can stay after a class for a moment. Once you have a quiet five minutes one-on-one, ask if they would be willing and comfortable writing a strong letter of recommendation for you.  Explain a little about why you’re asking — if you’ve greatly enjoyed their class, feel as though you’ve grown a lot because of it, and/or find your relationship with them meaningful.

Once you’ve braved the in-person ask, follow up with an email to say thank you and confirm. In that email, ask if the teacher has any forms they would like you to complete to provide further information about you.  (If not, don’t fret, we’ll offer some tips in the next section.) It’s also helpful to provide a sense of the number of schools you’re applying to as well as their application deadlines, starting with the earliest upcoming date. Finally, we recommend students also include a memorable moment in their course – try and put in writing what it’s meant to you

Try to include a few examples of times in which you think you’ve grown in their classroom, or moments of collaboration. This is not a time to be concise—write more than you think you need!

Offer up some material

If a teacher doesn’t have a standard form they ask you to fill out, it can be helpful to offer them some material for the recommendation. Remember: teachers are doing tons of these per year.  As with anything on that large a scale, they can all start to blend together! Give them an information sheet or a “brag sheet” that can help them remember your achievements and your quirks.

Some information you may want include:

  • Title the document with your name, your teacher’s name, the class(es) you had with the teacher and when.
  • List 3-5 words that this teacher would use to describe you, based on his/her observations of you or your work in class.
  • Cite a specific example to demonstrate at least one of the words you chose.
  • What are your academic strengths in this subject?  Describe how you were able to showcase your greatest strengths as a student while in the class.
  • What topic or experiences in class were particularly meaningful and why?
  • What piece of work / assignment in this class are you most proud of and why? (Perhaps it reflects your creativity, sense of responsibility, particular skills, or enjoyment of the topic.) (Include/link to the assignment with this request.)
  • What did you struggle with in this class and how did you overcome the challenge?
  • What careers or college majors are you considering?
  • List high school awards, recognitions or activities that specifically relate to your work, abilities or interests in this class or subject. (i.e. involvement in the literary magazine if your recommender is an English teacher). You may want to include your full resume, for their reference.
  • Why have you chosen this teacher to write your recommendation?  (If you haven’t already shared this info in the questions above, are there any accomplishments or details that you want to remind your teacher about, such as an experience in the class that stands out in your mind, or how the class challenged you, or what you enjoyed most?)

While this seems like a lot of information, it’s better to over-provide than under-deliver. Make sure to ask your teachers if there is a specific date that they would like all of this information by.  In our books, the earlier, the better.

Make sure they’re signed, sealed, and delivered

Most colleges and universities require teachers to electronically submit their letters of recommendation.  On your Common App portal, you should be able to see if they’ve already done so!  Remember to offer a gentle and polite reminder about two weeks before your applications are due they haven’t yet submitted.

While it’s pretty rare these days, some schools require that letters of recommendation are sent through the mail.  In that case, it is your responsibility to provide your teachers with stamped envelopes addressed to the admissions office of each school.  (Tip: make sure you’ve included the correct amount of postage!  You don’t want it to get stalled in the mail because of a miscalculation).

Say thank you

Letters of recommendation can sometimes take up to three hours to write. This isn’t an easy task for one, let alone hundreds!  Teachers do this out of their commitment and care for their students, and be sure to thank them properly for them.  A handwritten note can go a long way, at minimum.

(Wait, what about that guidance counselor recommendation?!)

Ah, yes. Before we sign off here, let’s talk about your guidance counselor recommendation. This is required by every school, and you want to make sure that it really reflects who you are both inside and outside of the classroom.  The easiest way to do this is, of course, develop a relationship with your counselor early on.  Communication is a two-way street, and let them know you are interested in getting to know them.  Some counselors ask that a coach or club advisor contribute their thoughts to help support their letter.  Others might ask for a student or parent brag sheet, which offers similar insight into some of the questions we outlined above. The bottom line?  The only way to find out what will help is to be upfront and communicative with your counselor.

Remember: everyone—your teachers, advisors, and counselors—are all on your team. They want to see you thrive in all possible ways.  Just make sure that you’re doing everything in your power to help them, help you.

If you have any questions, you’re welcome to call us at (203) 352-3500 or email us at [email protected].