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Planning and preparing for the SAT and ACT is tough proposition. Let our experts make it easier for you and your student by reviewing some of the many options available to improve scores, grow scholarship offers, and get into the best college!

How to Get a Strong Letter of Recommendation

Getting letters of recommendation isn’t a terribly difficult part of the college admissions process – after all, it’s the letter-writer, not you, who is going to do most of the work.

However, asking for letters can be particularly stressful for some students, who are worried about the etiquette of asking for a favor or deciding whom to ask.

To eliminate the stress and confusion from this otherwise straightforward aspect of the college admissions process, we’ve provided a handy list of reminders and things to consider before you ask your teachers for their help.

Establish Good Relationships with Teachers

You’ll get better recommendations if you’ve been the type of student teachers like to have in class—well-behaved, motivated and industrious.

You’ll find yourself in a great position to ask for letters of recommendation if you make a consistent effort over the years to make a good impression on your teachers. This means good attendance and behavior in class, lots of class participation, and making an effort to get to know your teachers outside class, whether through sports or extracurricular activities.

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Choose Your Recommenders Wisely

Pick recommenders who know you from both inside and outside class, and can write a specific and personal letter of recommendation.

The best type of recommender you can choose is someone who you have had as a teacher recently, who also knows you in some context outside of class. So, it is best to select a teacher from your sophomore or junior year, who also coaches one of the sports teams you participate in, or perhaps advises one of your extracurricular clubs or activities. Of course, you also want to pick a teacher with whom you have a good relationship, and in whose class you received a good grade.

If you’re asking a teacher you’ve had in the past, it helps if you make an effort to keep up with him or her after you’ve finished in their class. Admissions committees receive and read thousands of letters of recommendation per year, and most of them are boilerplate. So, the more personal and specific your letter of recommendation is, the more of an asset it will be to your application. Your teachers can only write this kind of letter if they truly know you! The same goes for guidance counselors. Many colleges require a letter of recommendation from your guidance counselor, and many students hardly know their guidance counselor at all. So, make an effort to get to know him or her as well.

Prepare a Set of Materials to Share

Have a file with your high school transcript, resume, and a piece of graded work, along with bullet points about your application, for your teacher to reference when he or she writes your letter of recommendation.

There is a certain set of materials you should provide your teachers to help them write your letters. You’ll want to include your high school transcript, a resume listing your sports and extracurricular activities, as well as any volunteer work or awards won, and a graded piece of work from that teacher’s class (for example, a graded term paper or exam). In addition, it helps to include a list of bullet points for the teacher, listing points or aspects of your high school career you’d like the teacher to touch upon. Most teachers are more than happy to oblige if you provide them with this information.

Some teachers will ask you to write a rough draft of the letter of recommendation you would like to receive, which he or she can then edit and add to as s/he sees fit. Although it’s best if your teacher writes the letter entirely on his or her own, if you’re asked to do this, make sure you include all the points you would like mentioned in this letter, as well.

Another crucial thing to include in your file is a list of due dates and instructions for how to submit the letters of recommendation. Since most schools use the Common App, your teacher will probably have an account he or she uses to submit your letter online. But, if the submission process varies at all for a particular school, make sure to let your teacher know. And, while the days of mailed paper applications are basically over, if it so happens that one of your schools requires paper recommendations, make sure you include a pre-stamped and addressed envelope along with your application materials.

Give Your Teacher Time

A last-minute letter of recommendation is a mediocre letter of recommendation—give your teachers six weeks or more to write yours for you.

Make sure you ask your teacher for the letter of recommendation at least six weeks before the letter is due. Giving him or her more time is even better. A good idea is to simply ask at the beginning of your senior year, before all your other classmates have asked. This will make it more likely the teacher is able to say yes to your request (some of them get asked by so many students they start having to say no), and also is able write a thoughtful, comprehensive letter for you. You don’t want your teacher to feel rushed and have to say no, or write a slapdash, thoughtless letter.

Have a Formal Meeting

Sitting down with your teacher and discussing your goals will help him or her write a more focused, persuasive letter of recommendation.

As mentioned above, you can provide your teacher with a list of bullet points of your college goals or what you would like them to mention in their letter of recommendation. However, an even better approach is to sit down with your teacher and discuss your college goals – what schools you’re applying to, what you’re hoping to study, what you’ve most enjoyed about high school, and what you’re most excited about for college – so that he or she has a really informed view of your situation before sitting down to your letter. While some teachers might not have time for this, many others will appreciate the opportunity to hear about your goals.

Know the Number of Letters You Need

You’ll most likely need two letters of recommendation, but some schools require more, so do the research and find out.

Most colleges will require two letters of recommendation, but there are some pesky schools out there that will require three. Still others will require specific types of letters of recommendation – perhaps one from an academic instructor and another from a coach or an extracurricular advisor, or from a supervisor at an after-school job or volunteer activity. Of late, some schools have also been asking for an optional peer recommendation—a letter from a classmate or a friend.

Don’t be caught unawares, learning only right before the application deadline that you’re missing a crucial of letter of recommendation. Make a spreadsheet of all the colleges you’re applying to, along with their various requirements – in addition to recommendations, list things such as financial aid application deadlines, required standardized testing and application fees – and then stay on top of everything.

And, just in case your preferred recommenders are too swamped to write your letter, make sure that you have backups in mind. If you’ve had a successful high school career, you should have more than enough teachers willing to sit down and write you a good letter of recommendation.

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Check-In Sparingly

You should check in with your teachers a few weeks before deadline to make sure your letter is on track to be submitted on time.

Whether you’re applying Early Decision/Action or Regular Decision, you want to make sure that you check in with your teachers before the deadline to ensure they’re on track and remember that they have to submit your letter. Teachers are busy people, with lessons to plan, essays to grade and countless other letters of recommendation to write. So, a few weeks out from the deadline, politely check in, see how the letter of recommendation is coming, and ask if there is anything you can do to assist. The Common App has a status checker where you can see if a letter has been submitted, which is a good way to prevent yourself from becoming too much of a pest. You don’t want your teacher to be annoyed with you when he or she is writing your letter!

Always Remember the Thank You Note

Show your appreciation for your teacher’s effort by writing him or her a thank-you note—you never know when you’ll need another favor.

After the process is over, write your teacher a thank you note for their help with your college admissions applications. Aside from it being a nice and polite thing to do, you never know when you’ll need to ask the teacher for another letter of recommendation or favor in the future. Make sure that you let them know that their time and effort are appreciated. After all, teachers aren’t obligated to write these letters for you. They only do so because they care about you and your future.

Don’t Stress

Remember that these letters won’t make or break your chances of admission to college—GPA and test scores remain decisive.

As we will remind you time and time again, the only things that have a true impact on your competitiveness in the college admissions game are your GPA and test scores. So, don’t get too stressed about getting perfect letters of recommendation – just make sure that you have them, and that they’re submitted in time. They’re simply a nice addition to your application, to give admissions officers more insight into your candidacy at schools where you’re already very competitive. These letters aren’t going to make or break your chances anywhere else.

Best of luck obtaining your letters of recommendation, and with the college admissions process in general!

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.