Teacher recommendations can make a difference. Frankly, however, the vast majority sound quite a bit the same. After all, few students are going to request references from teachers for whom they did lousy work. Most teacher “recs” mention what a fine (or reliable, conscientious, hardworking, intelligent, etc.) person you are. While these very typical recommendations don’t exactly hurt you, they don’t help a whole lot either, and—at the most competitive colleges—that can actually do some damage, because you won’t stand out in a tough crowd.
The best recommendations are those that stress how UNUSUAL and OUTSTANDING you are (e.g., “she has perhaps the keenest grasp of mathematics I’ve ever encountered in a high school student,” or “my youngest-ever poetry prize winner ...”; “... she did more community service than any student I've ever worked with ....,” etc.). The best ones also include brief examples or anecdotes to back up their claims.
Of course, it’s difficult to tell people what to say in a reference. Yet keep in mind that many individuals (especially teachers) are asked to write dozens of them, and they often value getting some direction. How do you do this?
For starters, let’s talk about “required” teacher recommendations. Most colleges require one or two teacher recs. Some schools impose specifics such as “Junior or Senior English teacher must be included” or “Choose only teachers who taught you a major academic subject.” The latter is a good policy, whether it’s expected or not. If a teacher in a secondary subject knows you really well—maybe through a club or sport—consider using that person as an extra optional reference. I’ll discuss the “optional” ones in a minute.
When you ask a teacher for a reference, be sure to present him or her with:
1. A copy of your resume or activities list.
2. Most important: A cover note. In this cover note you should say something like this: "I have been told that admission officials most value letters that emphasize anything that is unique or particularly outstanding or memorable about the applicant."
To help your teachers with this, add a couple reminders. What were the highlights of your experience with this teacher? Did she copy your research paper and distribute it to the entire class? Did he urge you to publish your short story in the school literary magazine? Did you get the highest grade on the final exam? These may be magic moments that you’ll remember for the rest of your life, but—believe me—even the most doting teachers could have forgotten already.
Similarly, what were your general strengths in this class? Did you participate actively in discussions? Did you stay late for extra help until you finally grasped a tough concept? Did you go from a 79 in your first marking period to a 95 in your last? Did you volunteer to tutor another student who was struggling? Sometimes, the highlights may include things that aren’t really academic at all (“Remember how we used to argue about the Mets vs. the Yankees in the hallway?”). Academics should be at the forefront of your “highlights,” but it’s fine to mention one or two of those things, too.
Trust me, though it may feel a bit awkward to put your successes down on paper, your teachers will be grateful to you for refreshing their memories and for enabling them to write the recommendations with minimal hassle.
If you ask a teacher for one reference now, and you think you may want others in the future (but you’re not sure of the specifics yet), it’s important to remind this teacher that you will probably ask again, once your list of target colleges is finalized. That way, the teacher will be sure to save a copy of the initial reference, which he or she can amend or ”recycle” down the road, as needed.
3. Finally, present each teacher with a stamped and addressed (to the appropriate college/s) envelope for each rec to be written. (At some schools, all references are to be returned to the guidance office.) While some teachers may want to give you copies of what they wrote (and that’s fine, if they volunteer them), colleges typically prefer to know that you have waived the right to see your references, so your teachers have written in confidentiality. Admission officers believe that confidential references are more “honest” than those that teachers know their students will see. (High school policy in this area often varies, too.)
While some students like to get a jump on the process by collecting references at the end of junior year, the fall of 12th grade—as busy as it is—is usually a better time to start this. Why?
As a junior, you are unlikely to have your list of target colleges finalized. Many colleges have their own reference forms. While students are not denied admission if a teacher does not use the appropriate form or simply writes a generic letter, colleges typically prefer when their own forms are used.
Likewise, as discussed above, some colleges may tell you exactly which teachers to ask (“Senior English teacher,” etc.) and you will need to heed those instructions.
Moreover, in some cases, your teachers will be able to tailor their references to the colleges on your list, noting that they think a particular school would be an excellent match for you. Admission officials like it when they read things like, “Catherine is a natural leader and go-getter like Tonya Johnson, whom I taught three years ago and is at George Washington now, doing a great job, just as I’m sure Catherine will do there.”
Always give your teachers as much notice as possible, but—if a deadline is looming—be sure to tell them when it is. By the way, if teacher recommendations reach admission offices shortly after deadlines, colleges will not penalize you. However, it is your responsibility to make sure that all parts of your applications have arrived safely
You may also want to include with your application one or two well chosen optional recommendations. Typically, these come from people who haven’t taught you and who may not be associated with your school—orchestra directors, community service supervisors, faculty from summer programs or research projects, employers, etc.
You can approach these people much the same way you approach teachers. Present them with a stamped envelope (more on that in a minute), a resume, and a cover letter reminding them of your strengths. If the activity they’ve known you from is especially elite or selective, mention that in the cover letter, too (“Colleges would find it helpful to know that I was the only high school student picked to take part in this project” or “… the regional choir is selected by audition, with only 1 in 20 applicants accepted.”)
Since these references are not required, it is not necessary for them to be “confidential.” Therefore, you can address the stamped envelope to yourself.
Colleges do not like to be flooded with optional recommendations. I rarely advise students to send more than two, except in atypical situations. Since these references are being sent to you, you can screen them first. Copy and send to colleges only those that are truly glowing and show a unique or very special side of you. Generic-sounding references that say merely something like, “This is a fine young person who will have success in college,” can actually work against you. Colleges will interpret them to mean, “Nothing stands out about this kid.”
Some students (or parents) feel that an application is not complete without a reference from a bigwig who is connected to the target college or is some sort of celebrity in general (e.g., an elected public official). Overall, these letters do little good unless the person writing them is very important indeed at that college (the dean, a faculty member) and also knows you well enough to write a letter that is really a truly personal endorsement. Having an alumnus who is only an acquaintance (or even just a friend of a friend) write a letter in your behalf won’t help at all and may look as if you’re saying, “I’m afraid I can’t get in on my own.”
While I’m all for cashing in on “real” clout (you’ve been babysitting for a trustee’s kids for seven years), the stuff that looks manufactured can actually hurt your chances.
You should never hesitate to ask for references from your teachers or others who can help further your college goals, but do remember that this is extra work for them. Always be polite and grateful and provide as much advance notice as possible.
Be sure to check out all my college-related articles and book reviews at College Confidential.