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How To Ask For A Letter Of Recommendation

Getting letters of recommendation from your teachers seems like a pretty simple and straightforward task, but there are plenty of things to keep in mind before you ask.

To make things easy for you, I’ve compiled a list of things you should consider doing before you start asking your teachers for letters of recommendation.

Keep in touch with your teachers.

Stay in touch with your teachers so they can write detailed and truly personal letters of recommendation.

In order to write an informed and persuasive letter of recommendation, your teachers will need to know who you are as a person. So be sure to keep up with your teachers after you’ve finished with their classes. This could be through participating in an extracurricular activity or sport for which they’re an advisor or coach, or simply by checking in with them every once in a while. (This is also a good way to make your teachers feel appreciated!)

You’ll want a letter from a teacher whom you’ve studied with in the fairly recent past, so focus on teachers from your sophomore and junior years. While it’s not forbidden to select a teacher from freshman year, you really should ask someone who has seen your recent performance. But, if your freshman year history teacher happens to be your soccer coach, or the director of the school play, for example, then it’s perfectly fine to ask them to write a letter for you.

Give your recommenders plenty of advance notice.

Don’t ask your teacher for a letter of recommendation at the last minute—you’ll either get a no or a hastily-written, mediocre letter.

Your teachers are busy people. They have lessons to plan, papers to grade, and all sorts of things going on in their own, personal lives. Plus, plenty of other students are going to be asking them for letters, too, and some teachers might have a personal limit on how many letters they’ll write per year. So, don’t spring a request for a letter of recommendation on them at the last minute. You should give them at least six weeks’ notice, and preferably more, before the letter’s due date. This will leave them enough time to write a thoughtful, measured letter of recommendation for you, without begrudging you for giving them a last-minute homework assignment.

To avoid running up against a time crunch, the best thing to do is to have all your recommendation materials prepared and ready to go over the summer, so that you can ask your teachers for recommendations during the first few weeks of school. After all, after classes begin, it’s only a few short months before early applications come due, and by that time, you’re competing with all of your classmates for your teachers’ attentions. The early bird gets the best recs!

Select your recommenders carefully.

Think about who can write you the best letter of recommendation before you ask.

This may seem like a no-brainer, but you want to make sure you ask for a letter of recommendation from someone who knows you well and who can write a positive letter of recommendation for you. If you have any reason to doubt that a teacher can write a positive letter—if you had a disciplinary issue in their class, or didn’t get a good grade, et cetera—then don’t ask this teacher for a recommendation! There should be plenty of teachers you have no question could write you a good letter, without the need to risk it by asking someone who is an iffy choice. And if you can’t think of anyone who can write you a good rec, then you might have more than your letters of recommendation to worry about when it comes to college applications!

The best teachers to ask for letters of recommendation are those who also know you outside of the classroom. Perhaps they’ve coached you on a team, or served as an adviser to one of your extracurricular activities. Or maybe they live in your town, and you’ve known them since you were young. These types of teachers can speak to multiple aspects of your life, not just your performance inside of the classroom.

Have backups in mind.

In case your preferred recommender isn’t able to write a letter for you, have a few other teachers who could write good letters in mind.

There’s a chance that your favorite few teachers might not be able to write you letters of recommendation. Perhaps they’re particularly popular instructors, and have been overwhelmed with requests. Or, they’ve simply got too much else on their plates, and tell you you’d be better off asking others. This isn’t too likely to happen, but just in case it does, you should have a list of three or four alternatives to turn to. If you’re the kind of student who applies to competitive colleges, you likely have plenty of teachers you can ask for a letter, so this shouldn’t be any problem for you.

Tailor your ‘ask’ to the person you’re asking.

You’re asking for a favor—think about how your recommender would like to be approached and proceed accordingly.

For most teachers, it should be fine to simply approach them after class or during a free period to ask for a letter of recommendation. But for others—those who have a tendency to be forgetful or who are exceptionally busy—it might be best to compose a brief, polite email asking for a letter. Don’t be presumptuous and attach a list of schools or instructions to this particular email. Wait for your teacher to respond in the affirmative, and then follow up with all the related materials. This approach will also provide you a handy way to reference your recommendation with your teacher later on down the road, when the letter becomes due.

Be prepared to politely remind your teacher of approaching due dates.

Your teacher is busy, and writing your letter might slip his or her mind, so make sure you check in to remind him or her about due dates.

As I’ve already said, your teachers are busy people, and it’s likely they’ve got lots of other letters of recommendation to write. So, there’s a good chance they might forget about you. Be prepared to remind them about an approaching deadline, either in person or via email. The best way to do this is to create a follow-up plan at the time you ask for the letter. You can give them the materials they need to write the letter and agree to a deadline, preferably a few weeks before letter is actually due, in case they get busy and need extra time.

But don’t harass your teacher or check in an excessive amount. You don’t want your teacher to be annoyed with you while he or she is writing your recommendation letter, lest it come across in the writing!

Don’t make your teacher ask you for supporting materials.

Compile all the materials your teacher will need to write you a letter of recommendation and get them to him or her without being asked.

Have a file (both electronic and paper) available with all the materials your teacher will need to write you a good letter of recommendation. Most teachers will want a copy of your high school transcript, a resume (or, at the very least, a list of your extracurricular activities, volunteer commitments and sports teams), and a piece of written work you did in their class—perhaps a graded term paper or exam. In addition, it doesn’t hurt to include a list of bullet points with things you’d like your teacher to touch upon in his or her letter. Most teachers will appreciate this extra information.

Occasionally, teachers will ask you to write a rough draft of the letter of recommendation you’re looking for, which they can then edit and personalize as they see fit. While this isn’t the most ethical approach to take, it’s fairly common, so, if you are preparing a draft for your teacher, make sure you hit all the points you want them to hit, and try to include anecdotes that will jog their memory about positive things to say about you.

It seems like the days of paper recommendations are over, so you probably don’t have to worry about providing your teacher with pre-stamped and addressed envelopes to mail your recommendations off to your schools. However, you should include a list of schools, along with submission instructions and due dates, to help your teacher keep everything organized. For most schools, after you’ve registered your teacher as a recommender via the Common App, he or she will get an email with instructions about how to create an online account, where he or she can submit your letter of recommendation electronically.

Get to know your guidance counselor.

Make an effort to get to know your guidance counselor personally, so he or she doesn’t have to write you an impersonal, boilerplate letter of recommendation.

At many schools, guidance counselors are overworked, with responsibility for hundreds of students, all applying to schools at the same time. Even at schools where guidance counselors aren’t severely outnumbered by students, you probably only see your guidance counselor a few times a year, especially in your freshman and sophomore years. This makes it incumbent upon you to seek out your guidance counselor and get to know him or her personally. Many schools will require a letter of recommendation from your guidance counselor, and your letter will be much better if, rather than a one-size-fits-all submission, he or she can add a personal touch.

Find out how many recommendations you need.

You’ll probably only need two, but some schools require more, so find out ahead of time and be prepared.

By and large, most schools require two letters of recommendation, so that might be all that you need. However, some schools have different requirements. You might need one non-academic reference (from a coach, a boss at your after-school job, et cetera), a peer reference, or a third letter of recommendation from a teacher. Sometimes, these additional recommendations are optional; however, any time a school gives you an opportunity to add supporting materials to your application, you should take it. The best thing to do to make sure you’re prepared is to make up a spreadsheet of each school you’re applying to, along with its various requirements. This will help you ensure you’ve got your letter of recommendation bases covered.

Best of luck with the college admissions process!

Shaan Patel

Shaan Patel is the founder of Prep Expert Test Preparation, a #1 bestselling SAT & ACT prep author, an MD/MBA student at Yale and USC, and winner of an investment deal with billionaire Mark Cuban on ABC’s Shark Tank. He raised his own SAT score from average to perfect using 100 strategies that we teach in our Prep Expert SAT and ACT courses.