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Everything You Need to Know About Gathering Stellar Letters of Recommendation for College

Like your college application essays, recommendation letters tell colleges who you are beyond your GPA, SAT score, and resume.

It’s the only part of your application where colleges learn about you from someone else’s perspective.

Letters of recommendation may not be the most important component of your application, but their value should not be underestimated. In fact, many schools rate them as more important than factors like class rank, subject test scores (AP/IB), and extracurriculars.

You may feel like you don’t have much control over how your recommendation letters turn out, but that’s not the case. Read on to learn what you can do to gather the best letters of recommendation possible.

Who should write my recommendation letters?

Carefully read the instructions in the college’s application or on the school’s website. Some schools specify who needs to write your letters, so pay attention to this information.

For example, a recommendation from a counselor may be required. Some colleges may prefer recommendations from teachers of certain subjects.

If you aren’t limited by these guidelines, find someone who:

  • Knows you well
  • Likes you
  • Taught you recently
  • Teaches a core subject or a subject related to your academic and career goals
  • Has coached or managed you outside the classroom

Of course, you want the person who writes your recommendation to know you well and like you. Otherwise, the letter won’t be compelling and persuasive. It’ll also lack the personal touches that make for a truly great letter of recommendation.

Colleges want to hear from teachers who taught you recently. Your middle school teacher, for instance, isn’t the best choice. It’s a good idea to ask someone who taught you during your junior year (since senior year is just getting started).

You may also want to ask a teacher who knows you outside of the classroom — someone who coached your sports team, directed you in a play, or is the sponsor of a club that you’re active in.

Finally, ask someone who teaches a core subject like reading, math, history, or science. There are some exceptions to this rule, though. If you’re planning to major in art history and have expressed your passion for art throughout your application, for instance, a recommendation from your art teacher would be a great fit.

Here’s What Actually Makes Your High School Resume Impressive to Colleges

When should I ask for letters of recommendation?

Ask for your letters of recommendation as far in advance as possible. Teachers are busy as it is, and many teachers will receive recommendation requests from multiple students. The earlier you ask, the more your teacher will appreciate it (and the better your letter will turn out).

At the absolute minimum, you should give your teachers three weeks’ notice. However, more notice is even better. Plus, it’s helpful to be one of the first students your teacher writes a letter for, before he or she gets “recommendation-writing fatigue.”

How should I ask for recommendation letters?

Once you’ve selected the teachers you’d like to ask for recommendations, it’s time to put in your request.

Here are a few guidelines for asking for letters of recommendation:

  • Ask in person, not via e-mail.
  • Ask when your teacher isn’t busy and won’t feel put on the spot (e.g., not in the middle of class while surrounded by other students). Say, “Mr. Thomas, do you have five minutes to talk?” You can also e-mail your teacher in advance to schedule a time to talk about college.
  • Ask one-on-one. Again, you don’t want your teacher to feel put on the spot.
  • Unsure if the teacher will write you a positive letter? Ask, “Would you feel comfortable writing a letter of recommendation for me?” or, “Would you be willing and able to write a strong letter of recommendation for me?” If their response is anything less than enthusiastic, it may be a good idea to choose someone else.

If the teacher says, “yes,” thank them and let them know you’ll email your resume (or you can have a printed copy ready to provide). Ask if there’s any more information the teacher will need to write your recommendation. If there is, or if the teacher has their own process they’d like you to follow, do as asked.

In most cases, teachers will submit the letter of recommendation electronically. If it needs to be mailed in, however, it’s your responsibility to supply the teacher with a stamped, addressed envelope.

And finally, here’s one way not to ask your teacher: Do not simply add the teacher’s name and email to your Common App with no prior conversation. This will reflect poorly on you and is unlikely to lead to a positive letter. To ask for a letter of recommendation, you’ll need to actually ask, not just assume.

What information should I provide?

After your teacher has agreed to write the letter, you’ll need to send a follow-up email. The follow-up email serves a few purposes.

Since teachers are busy and working with so many students, it’s easy to forget a five-minute conversation unless it’s also put in writing.

Your follow-up will also include helpful information that will enable your teacher to write a detailed, persuasive letter of recommendation.

Start the follow-up by thanking your teacher again for writing your letter of recommendation. In a few bullet points, list the following:

  • The schools you’re applying to
  • The deadlines
  • Your plans: Major, minor (if applicable), which school is your first choice (if applicable), and career goals

Next, provide some information about your academic performance and your performance in this teacher’s class (again, the teacher has a lot of students):

  • Weighted and unweighted GPA and grade in the teacher’s class
  • How you contributed to your teacher’s classroom
  • Your favorite lessons, memories, projects or accomplishments you’re most proud of in that class, etc.
  • Any strengths, passions, or other personal qualities you’d like the teacher to highlight in your letter
  • Any challenges or obstacles you’ve overcome — and if you feel your grades aren’t a reflection of your ability, why? What difficulties did you have and what have you done to improve?

Finally, attach your resume to the email. It should mention extracurricular activities, awards and accomplishments, and any work experience that you’ve had too.

Sign off by expressing more gratitude and telling the teacher to let you know if there’s anything else you can provide to be helpful.

With a week or two left before the deadline, follow up with the teacher to make sure all is well and ask if there’s any additional information you can provide. You can do this in person or via email, but email is always a helpful way to ensure the teacher remembers what you’ve discussed.

What should I do after receiving the letter of recommendation?

Once the letter of recommendation is complete, do something to thank your teacher(s) for the time and effort it took to write your letter(s).

You may want to purchase a small gift or a gift card to Starbucks, Target, or another place you know your teacher frequents. If you don’t have the funds to buy a gift, provide a handwritten thank you note to show your appreciation.

When you decide where you’re going to school, let your recommenders know which college you’re attending and thank them again for their support.

Other Tips for Great Letters of Recommendation

  • Waive your FERPA rights through the Common App. This means that you won’t get to see what your teacher wrote. Colleges trust letters of recommendation more when you’ve waived your FERPA rights, because they feel the teacher wasn’t influenced by the knowledge that you would read the letter.
  • If you still have time before applying to college, build relationships with your counselor and teachers. It’ll be difficult to gather quality letters of recommendation if your teachers and counselor haven’t gotten a chance to know you.
  • What if it’s time to ask for letters of recommendation and you haven’t gotten to know your teachers? Stop by and have a conversation. Make an extra effort in the time you have remaining. And when it’s time to supply information, provide more extensive info for teachers who may not know you well.
  • If you’re getting letters from multiple teachers, choose teachers who can highlight separate strengths, forming a more complete picture of you and your qualities/abilities.

Final Thoughts: Everything You Need to Know About Gathering Stellar Letters of Recommendation for College

And there you have it! Gathering quality letters of recommendation isn’t rocket science, but it does require planning and politeness.

Choose teachers who know you well, like you, teach core subject areas (in most cases), and have taught you recently, preferably during junior year.

Ask well in advance, provide your teacher with plenty of helpful information, and express your gratitude.

Follow the tips in this guide, and you’ll set your application apart from the rest with thorough, compelling letters of recommendation.

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Author: Jason Patel

Jason Patel is the founder of Transizion, a college counseling and career services company that provides mentorship and consulting on college applications, college essays, resumes, cover letters, interviews, and finding jobs and internships. Jason’s work has been cited in The Washington Post, BBC, NBC News, Forbes, Fast Company, Bustle, Inc., Fox Business, and other great outlets. Transizion donates a portion of profits to underserved students and veterans in of college prep and career development assistance.