I Can't Find Appropriate Teachers to Write My Recommendation Letters


I feel like I have no options on getting letters of recommendation from teachers. I asked two teachers who I know well and they both said they're full. I have other teachers who know me but they're in subjects that aren't impressive (one is PE, the other is drama — I am trying to get into engineering). What do people do in this situation?

"The Dean" agrees that you're in a bit of a bind. Admission officials expect to see recommendation letters that come from teachers of the heavy-hitter subjects, and — no matter how many pull-ups your PE teacher required or how many lines from Hamlet your drama teacher made you memorize — these aren't the right folks to ask. Moreover, as a prospective engineering major, you should try to submit at least one reference from a math, science or computer science teacher. So here are some suggestions of steps you can take to get the letters you need.

1. Don't Give up on Teachers Who Said No

You shouldn't lose all hope on the teachers who said "no." Instead, make an appointment to speak with the two teachers who are already "full." Explain your dilemma, and insist that you'll repay the time it takes to write your reference but multiplied by Pi! (The STEM folks should love this.) In other words, if the teacher estimates that he or she will spend an hour on your letter, you will offer 3.14 hours in exchange. You should also suggest what you could do. Are other tasks in order that the teacher needs help performing, or can you help with tutoring? Once the teacher sees that you need a favor but that you're ready to provide a favor in return, you may wrangle that recommendation after all.

2. Cultivate Relationships With Current Teachers

If the teachers you already asked taught you in past years, you may have to focus on your senior teachers who don't know you well yet. Begin with the academic subject or subjects in which you're doing best so far. Approach the teacher(s) and explain your problem, asking if the teacher might be able to write on your behalf and, if so, how soon that can happen. For example, if your colleges have application deadlines in January or beyond, you have plenty of time for your new teachers to get to know you. But if you're aiming for Early Decision or Rolling Admission schools and want your references sent in October, a 12th-grade teacher may not feel prepared to support you that soon. But it doesn't hurt to find out.

3. Ask Your Guidance Counselor for Advice

Certainly you aren't the only student in this predicament. When high school teachers put limits on the number of recommendations they write, there are inevitably seniors who get shut out. So perhaps your counselor has thoughts on how to proceed ... or is accustomed to nudging some of the more popular teachers to encourage them to extend their limits.

4. Remember That Rec Letters May Not Play A Starring Role

You should also read these tips about recommendation letters. Here you'll find additional advice that "The Dean" gave to another student in similar straits. You'll also see that, although the best teacher references may move a borderline applicant into the "In" pile, the majority of recommendation letters are complimentary but generic, and they don't play a starring role in the admissions process.

About the Ask the Dean Column

Sally Rubenstone is a veteran of the college admissions process and is the co-author of three books covering admissions. She worked as a Smith College admission counselor for 15 years and has also served as an independent college counselor, in addition to working as a senior advisor at College Confidential since 2002. If you'd like to submit a question to The Dean, please email us at