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How to Follow Up with Your Recommenders

Letters of recommendation are a key piece of most college applications. Like your personal statement, they tell colleges something about who you are beyond the numbers. And unlike any other part of your application, they include someone else’s perspective on your character, accomplishments and potential.

We have a few articles about how to get great letters of recommendation and when to ask for them.

But what happens if the application deadline is rapidly approaching, and you’re still waiting on the letter?

How can you politely follow up? When should you move on and ask someone else? In this article, we’ll share how to expertly navigate this difficult scenario!

Letters of Recommendation: The Basics

Ideally, you won’t have to follow up on your letters of recommendation. The best case scenario is that the process of asking for and receiving your recommendations goes smoothly!

Here are some letter of recommendation basics and best practices that can help you get excellent recommendations on schedule:

  • Know all the requirements. Carefully follow each college’s requirements on who should write your letters of recommendation. Beyond the basic requirements, ask someone who taught you recently, knows you well, and will have positive things to say about you. It helps if they teach a core class related to your academic and career aspirations.
  • Ask early. Ask for your recommendations as early as possible, before your teachers get overwhelmed with requests. The absolute latest you should ask is three weeks in advance, but aim for much sooner. This allows for the possibility of issues, like a teacher running behind on your letter. Plus, your teacher will appreciate you asking early, and they’ll write your letter before “recommendation fatigue” sets in.
  • Ask in person, and give lots of detail. Ask your recommenders in person, then follow up with an email detailing the schools you’re applying to, their deadlines, and what you’re planning to major in. You should also send information about your performance in the teacher’s class (remember: they have a lot of students!) and your academic performance in general, as well as extracurricular activities, accomplishments, and any challenges or obstacles you’ve overcome. Giving your recommenders all the information they need upfront can help speed up the letter-writing process! 
  • Provide a stamped, addressed envelope (if using snail mail). Typically, your recommenders will submit their letters electronically. If they need to mail the letter, it’s up to you to provide a stamped, addressed envelope to each recommender.

If you follow these tips, you’re more likely to receive well-written, glowing letters of recommendation on time or even ahead of schedule. 

When to Follow Up with Recommenders

Of course, the best case scenario doesn’t always happen. As the deadline zooms toward you, here’s a timeline on when to follow up with your recommenders.

First, you should know one thing: The information on college application portals isn’t always accurate. For example, a college may have already received your recommendation, even if the portal isn’t yet updated. It can take up to two weeks for the portal to update. So, as you think about following up, keep in mind that your recommender isn’t necessarily late.

The information on college application portals isn’t always accurate. Be patient and wait for the data to update.

The first time you reach out should be two weeks before the deadline. If your teacher doesn’t update you within a few days, you can follow up again. At most, follow up two more times a few days apart if necessary. 

You can’t write the letter yourself or force your recommender to write it; there’s only so much you can do. Plus, following up excessively might result in annoyance, and you don’t want colleges to pick up on that in your letter.

Why You Should Ask Your BFF for a Recommendation

How to Follow Up with Recommenders

Your first follow-up should be a simple email.

Email is a helpful way to ensure the teacher remembers your conversation. After all, teachers are extremely busy and navigating hundreds of questions, conflicts and student concerns daily. If you simply ask about your letter on the way out of class, it’s easy for your teacher to forget.

First, follow up with a polite email. If you don’t get a response in a few days, follow up in person when your teacher isn’t busy.

Make sure your email is extremely polite. Be considerate of your teacher’s time and the demands of their job. Simply state that you’re following up on your letter of recommendation, and mention the deadline. Has your recommender had a chance to send it? If not, is there any additional information you can provide to be helpful? 

You may also want to reattach your resume or “brag sheet” to the email for easy and convenient reference. End the email with a statement like, “I know teachers are extra busy during this time of year, so I can’t thank you enough for your time and support.”

If your recommender doesn’t respond within a few days, follow up again in person. Try to find a time when your teacher isn’t busy or overwhelmed, and when you can speak to them one-on-one. You may need to stop by early in the morning or after school. Politely ask if the teacher received your email and if there’s any more information you can share.

Repeat this process if you need to follow up again later, making sure to always mention the deadline. Although you may feel increasingly worried and frustrated, it’s important to remain polite and patient with your recommenders. 

When to Ask Someone Else for a Letter of Recommendation

Almost always, your recommenders will write your letter after the first or second time you follow up. If not, you may start thinking about asking someone else to write your letter of recommendation. 

Don’t write off your recommender too soon. Make sure they really aren’t going to send the letter before picking their replacement.

Here’s the tricky part: Depending on the application you’re using, you may not be able to change your recommender at the last minute. If you do have the option of choosing someone else, you don’t want to wait much longer than 10 days before the application is due.

However, keep in mind that your original recommender may finish up your letter right after you ask someone else. They might feel offended that you didn’t trust them to send the letter, and that you went to a different recommender instead of waiting patiently.

Unless you have a real reason to believe that your recommender will not write the letter, try to wait instead of asking someone else. If your recommender tells you they’re extremely busy or have extenuating circumstances, ask if they’d prefer for you to find a different recommender. Otherwise, continue politely following up and trusting that the letter will get done.

Worst Case Scenario: What if my recommender doesn’t send the letter on time?

We covered the best case scenario, so let’s talk about the worst case scenario. What if your recommender misses the deadline?

First, colleges give much more wiggle room for letters of recommendation than for the application itself. They won’t advertise that this wiggle room is allowed, and you shouldn’t count on or try to take advantage of it. But if your letter is a bit late, don’t panic.

Schools know you only have so much control over when your recommenders send their letters. Often, colleges will follow up with both the applicant and the recommender when a letter is late. If your follow-ups didn’t get the job done, a follow up from the admissions committee might. 

Colleges may not say it up front, but many are flexible when it comes to due dates for letters of recommendation.

Finally, call the admissions office and confirm that they never received the later. Explain the situation honestly and see if you can get an extension. If so, follow up with the teacher again. Say that although the deadline was missed, the college has agreed to give you an extension. See if there’s anything you can do to make the process easier.

At this point, if you’re sure the recommender is unreliable, you can ask a different teacher to write the letter. Remember that it’s your emergency, not theirs, and they aren’t obligated to help you. Calmly explain what happened, ask for their help, and sincerely thank them if they’re willing to save the day.

Letters of recommendation may not be the star of your application, but don’t underestimate their importance. Use letter of recommendation best practices, follow up politely and persistently, and hope for the best!

Aside from these tips, focus on perfecting the parts of the application that you can control.

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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.