Soliciting Rec Letters When Top-Choice Teachers Say No


I had been planning to go to community college, but I recently made a connection with a rep from a four-year school at a college fair and I've decided to apply there even though I know I'm late compared to most seniors. The school requires two recommendation letters. The two teachers I asked said they only do 15 per year and they've already done those, so they can't do mine. I don't know many other teachers very well. Can I ask my parents? A friend? A neighbor? They all know me well and can talk about my strengths and weaknesses.

Without seeing the actual application form, “The Dean" can't say for sure. But typically, colleges expect teacher recommendation letters. Some ask for one; others want two. Even if your college is different and the application doesn't specify “Teacher," you'd be doing yourself a disservice by not submitting any references from someone who taught you in your junior or senior year.

So here's what “The Dean" suggests:

First, email both of the teachers who turned you down (or an in-person request is fine, too) and explain that you only recently decided not to attend community college so that's why you're late with the recommendation request. Ask if there's any chance that they might make an exception to the 15-limit policy. Offer to do something in exchange ... e.g., help update bulletin boards in the classroom or organize a file cabinet ... This mere offer alone may sway a reluctant teacher to capitulate.

Next, if one (or both) of these teachers still says no to the request, then ask other teachers, even if you feel they're not ideal. Sometimes teachers know you better than you might suspect. My own son, for instance, didn't ask his 11th grade English teacher for a reference because the class was very large and he felt she didn't know him well enough. But then, later, another teacher relayed to him a complimentary and insightful comment that the junior English teacher had made about him, and it showed him that this teacher actually would have been a good recommender.

And, regardless of who ends up doing the writing, provide him or her with a thank-you-in-advance note (email is fine) that provides a short list of “highlights" of your time in that class. This list should include three or four items such as, “You read my Hamlet essay aloud to everyone" or “I earned my first 'A' ever in science with you" or “I improved from a 79 to an 89 thanks to your after-school extra help." If you can't come up with several academic highlights, you can toss in more frivolous memories along the lines of, “Your Family Guy anecdotes always made the class fun" or “Although I hate the Yankees, I still loved your game recaps." When teachers write 15 (or more!) recommendations, it can be hard for them to fill even half a page, and these little memory-joggers will be much appreciated.

Finally, if you do end up asking teachers who don't know you well, then send an email to your college's admission office explaining what you already told “The Dean" — that your late application meant that you couldn't choose the teachers you wanted so you had to ask others who may not paint a clear picture of you. Then you can add that you're also submitting an extra, unsolicited reference from someone — not a teacher — who can address your strengths more accurately. A friend or neighbor would be a better choice than a relative. A coach, employer, clergy member, activity advisor, etc. would be best. And, since you're pointing out in the email that you just recently “discovered" this school at a college fair, it's a nice touch to add the name of the college official you met there — or if you don't know it — to at least emphasize that this person did a great job of representing the college.

Presumably, you will also have a reference from your guidance counselor. Most (but not all) colleges require this. Of course, the college folks realize that some school counselors can't tell one advisee from another without relying on the School Picture Day photo! So while a glowing counselor recommendation will be a plus, a short, generic one won't hurt you.

However, even if your counselor can write convincingly on your behalf, you shouldn't apply to college without any reference letters from a teacher. When college admission officials evaluate candidates, they scan the teacher recommendations to look for atypical superlatives (“The best writer I've ever seen!") and for cautionary flags (e.g., “He catches on quickly but can be impatient with those who don't" ) Extremes like these will often play a role in admission outcomes. But most of the time, the teacher comments (“conscientious," “polite") are predictable and don't move an application closer to — or farther from — the “In" pile. So if you can't convince your top-choice teachers to write on your behalf, don't worry about settling for alternates. Your grades, test scores, essay and other application imperatives will play a far bigger role in your admissions verdict than your teacher letters will.


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