Asking for letters of recommendation isn’t anyone’s favorite part of applying to college, but it’s an important one. We’ve got several ideas below to make the process painless for you and your teachers — and ensure you get the most effective letters of recommendation to further strengthen your college applications.
Why letters of recommendation matter
Letters of recommendation carry more weight than many students realize. At many schools, they have more influence than factors such as your interview, class rank, or extracurricular activities.
Let’s face it: Colleges receive applications from tons of very qualified students — far more than they can possibly admit. If a decision comes down to you and one other student with similar grades, SAT scores, etc., your letters of recommendation can provide insight into your best qualities and personality to (hopefully) give you the edge.
If you have a weak spot in your application like less-than-ideal SAT scores or minimal extracurriculars, a great letter of recommendation can help highlight your strengths and minimize that weakness.
Whom should I ask for letters of recommendation?
In general, you want to ask for letters of recommendation from teachers who know you well, like you, and are familiar enough with your work to provide a lot of detail. Letters from people who don’t know you as well will sound off and can do more harm than good. Ideally, ask those who teach a core subject, or one directly related to your intended major. Focus on those who have taught you most recently. They’ll have the freshest memories to draw on when writing their letters.
If you need letters from more than one teacher, think of teachers who can speak to different aspects of your character/work habits. For example, if you always excelled in English but worked hard to get good grades in math, those teachers will have different perspectives on your strengths. The letters of recommendation they write would highlight different, positive aspects of your character.
Some colleges require letters from teachers of specific subjects. As you create your list of potential recommenders make sure you check the requirements. You may have to have a different list for different colleges.
How do I ask for a letter of recommendation?
Asking for a letter of recommendation can feel awkward, but it really shouldn’t. Teachers are expecting students to come to them for this. But keep in mind it can be a big task for teachers who are asked by 20+ students, so you want to be respectful of the time and work involved.
Make sure you ask when the teacher still has a lot of time. Asking even three weeks before the letter of recommendation is due is cutting it close. Giving your teachers more leeway also helps you: The more time they have, the more they can make the letter sparkle. (Do you really want to use a letter of recommendation written by someone annoyed and in a hurry because it was a last-minute request?)
In fact, it’s perfectly acceptable to ask teachers at the end of your junior year to write your letter of recommendation. Their memories of you will be fresh and they’re less likely to have an in-box full of other students’ requests.
Ideally, you should ask in person and do it at a time when the teacher isn’t attending to other tasks or other students. You’ll want to carve out a few minutes when you can have some one-on-one time with the teacher.
If you have to ask via email for some reason, keep it brief and polite: Ask if they’d be willing to write a letter for you, explain why you’re asking them (you learned a lot from them, it’s your favorite class, etc.), tell them roughly when the deadline is so they know they won’t have to rush, and offer to provide any additional information they need to complete the letter. (We’ve got an example below of an email you can customize for your teachers.)
How do I handle ‘no’?
It doesn’t happen often, but a teacher may decline to write a letter for you. Don’t take it personally! The teacher may simply not have enough time to write a strong letter for you or feel like they don’t know you well enough to craft an effective letter.
We won’t lie: It may sting. But in the long run, it’s better to be told no than to have a college admissions team reading a half-hearted letter a teacher wrote in a hurry. Thank the teacher for their time and move on to the next name on your list.
What information should I provide?
Once your teacher has agreed to write the letter, you have one more task to do.
First, complete any forms your teacher or school require to make the process easier for the teachers — and send them back as soon as possible.
You should also email a copy of your résumé and the due dates for the relevant college(s). You can also include a short paragraph with personal details such as what you hope to study, why you chose these schools, etc. Your teacher may know you well, but they’re also probably writing letters for many students. The easier you make it for them to write the letter, the better it will turn out.
If the college requires a mailed letter or any other atypical requirements, take care of those details for your teacher: Provide the stamped envelope, a link to your art portfolio, a print out of the college’s form, or whatever other information they may need to complete the letter easily.
Seem like a lot? It doesn’t have to be. Here’s a sample message that you can use:
[subject line] Letters of Recommendation for State University and Nearby College, due Nov. 1
Hello, Ms. Jones,
I hope this note finds you well. Thank you again for agreeing to write my letters of recommendation. I really appreciate your help. I’ve included my résumé and some other information that I hope will make the process easier for you.
I’m applying to State University and Nearby College which both have deadlines of Nov. 1, so there’s no rush. I’m planning to study [anticipated major] and work on [career goals].
Please let me know if there is any other information I can provide or if you have any questions. Thanks again so much for your help! Sincerely, Your name
This is the basic structure, but you can — and should — customize any part of this to sound more like you and include other personal details. For example, if Ms. Jones’ class is the one that inspired your interest in a specific career path, mention it! Teachers love to hear that kind of feedback and it can help them write an even stronger letter.
For the section that mentions “other information,” you can attach anything that might help your teacher remember your strengths and unique talents so they can include those details in their letter. Depending on what you’ve done and your future plans, this could include an art portfolio, leadership positions you've held, awards you’ve won, etc. Some high schools provide questionnaires for students to fill out. Ask your school counselor if they have any similar resources.
When and how do I follow up?
About two weeks before the letter of recommendation is due, you can check in with your teacher to thank them for writing the letter of recommendation for you that is due on XX/XX/XXXX date. (This is polite and will also remind them of the upcoming deadline if they’re running late.)
Within a week of the letter being sent, you absolutely should send a thank you note to the teacher. Ideally, it should be a written note. But if the school is on break and you don’t have a mailing address for the teacher, an email will do.
Got into your first-choice school in part because of a great recommendation letter? Make sure you let the teachers who helped you know! Chances are they'll be almost as thrilled as you are.
Carol Katarsky is a contributing writer for Nitro. She is an award-winning journalist with extensive experience writing about both finance and education. Her corporate and non-profit clients include AIG, Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, and the Project Management Institute. She lives in Philadelphia with her husband, son, and one cat more than she should. Read more by Carol Katarsky