Admissions

College Recommendation Letters: Who, When and How to Ask

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A critical component of most college applications is the recommendation letter. It's the first chance an admissions officer gets to see if others will back up the story you tell about yourself, your personal strengths and your academic achievements. Check out our answers to the three biggest questions you'll need to ask when it comes to obtaining a recommendation letter.


Who to Ask

The best recommendation will come from someone who knows you well and wants to speak on your behalf. But before you go knocking on your favorite teacher's door after school, read all your applications closely. Some schools may require recommenders to be core academic teachers or guidance counselors; they may also stipulate that it be a current teacher of yours. On this latter point we actually agree: the more recently you've had a teacher, the better they'll be equipped to talk about who you are now.

If you're fortunate to still have a lot of teachers to choose from, look for those with whom you did any extra-credit or extracurricular work, or for ones who taught classes for which you submitted a standout project and in which you earned high grades. If these teachers know you beyond the classroom, even better: Did your Spanish teacher also lead the Spanish Club you joined? Did your AP U.S. History teacher supervise the feminist club you started? These individuals, having a more holistic view of your passions and personality, can likely deliver a letter that speaks volumes. Ultimately, the ideal recommender is someone who will be excited to discuss your academic accomplishments, individual growth and positive contributions both inside and outside the classroom.

How to Ask

Don't just drop a request like this on your teacher's desk a few days before your application is due. Your recommenders are going to need plenty of time to plan, write and deliver your letter — and it's likely that they may be doing the same for other students, too. Try to catch them near the end of your time with them your junior year and try to schedule an appointment before or after school as opposed to cornering them between periods. In other words, be respectful and polite in asking them for this favor, and if they hesitate or seem unsure, thank them and move on to a different teacher.

When to Ask

If a teacher does agree to be your recommender, thank them and follow up with details within 24 hours. Provide them with specific evidence like your resume, transcript, writing samples, career goals and aspirations, an explanation of challenges you've overcome, and reminders of essays or projects that you were proud of in their class, so that they have details to back up their claims about you. Most importantly, make your teachers aware of your deadline and how to deliver the final recommendation letter. You don't want to be in a situation where your application is due, but you are short one required letter. And just to cover all your bases, follow up with your recommenders a few weeks before your deadline. Finally, once the stress of application season is over and you've made a final decision, take a moment to handwrite a thank-you note to your recommenders. Let them know your plans for the future and how grateful you are for their support during your high school career and beyond.

Rec Letters Should Work in Your Favor

Just like the other aspects of your application, strong recommendation letters are an opportunity to advocate for your fit and contribution to a college's next class of students. If you are thoughtful, proactive, and provide the necessary tools, chances are the resulting letters will work in your favor.

For more tips on tackling parts of the college admissions process, check out our YouTube channel and our book, College Admissions 101.

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