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Start Early to Get Outstanding Teacher Recommendations

When applying to college, there are two main types of recommendation letters you’ll need from your mentors.

One is written by your school’s guidance counselor, and the second is written by two different core subject teachers.

Securing a strong teacher recommendation requires proper planning and attention.

Read on to discover how starting early can help you get ahead in the admissions process.

What is a teacher recommendation?

Most colleges and universities require two recommendations written by two core subject teachers. In them, teachers describe you as a student in their class and highlight your strengths, abilities, accomplishments and growth as they observed during the year.

This recommendation gives valuable insight to college admissions officers about your learning style, how well you work in class, how often do you contribute to class discussions, how you participate in class, how much effort you demonstrated on assignments, and what aspects of study you have improved upon throughout the year.

Unlike with guidance counselor recommendations, teacher recos allow you to choose who will write your recommendations. 

Understand that teachers are not required to write letters of recommendation. They are often done on personal time in addition to their teaching duties. If their answer is no, unfortunate as it may be, it’s completely acceptable.

What’s more, some popular teachers may even have a waitlist, so ask early, be understanding and be patient. 

Who do I ask for a recommendation?

By the end of junior year, look for two to four recent, high-level core subject teachers to ask for a recommendation. Most colleges require at least two teacher letters, so having more in mind provides a buffer should a teacher decline.

In addition to junior year classes, a sophomore year AP or high-level teacher can also be considered if you have a strong relationship or experienced sizable personal growth in that class. Avoid freshman and senior year teachers; one taught you too long ago and the latter has not taught you long enough.

Your teachers should be core subject teachers, whose subjects include foreign language, math, science, English and social studies/history. Some students opt to ask one STEM teacher and one humanities, but this truly depends on what school and what major you are applying for.

For example, if you plan to be an international business major, you can ask your economics and foreign language or history teachers for a recommendation.

Also, give special consideration to teacher you’ve had more than one class with.

I took the lecture-based AP Economics course with one of my favorite year teachers in sophomore year and also took the post AP senior discussion based seminar with the same teacher. This teacher saw my personal growth and progress within the subject through senior year in a variety of settings: large lecture halls as well as intimate discussions. 

How do I approach my recommender? 

First, ask about the teacher’s recommendation policy.

Some teachers may blacklist or refuse to write for certain schools. Some teachers may report your class rank in the letter. Some teachers may feature a specific final project.

Ask them directly, or talk to an upperclassmen.

And do it early, like the spring of your junior year.

Make an appointment through email for an in person, one-on-one talk (because it would be awkward if you asked with a friend and the teacher agrees to you but declines your friend). Be sure to formally ask your teacher for a recommendation and have them agree before adding their name onto the Common Application, which sends an automated email.

When you schedule a meeting, prepare any documents in advance. Have your transcript, resume and brag sheet on hand.

When it’s all said and done, send a thank you note!

How do I ask my recommender… in detail? 

At a loss for words?

Here is what I would say when approaching my teacher to ask for a recommendation:

“I feel like I’ve really been able to find my voice in your class. (Here you should give specific examples of projects you’ve led or presentations that you’ve been proud of). I’m applying to colleges next fall and I’m trying to be proactive and organized. Of all the teachers, I think you know me the best. Would you be willing and able to write me a strong letter of recommendation?”

If your teacher agrees, then say:

“Tonight, I’ll email you all the relevant information: resume, list of colleges and their deadlines, and some projects that I think I really made an impact on. If there’s anything else you need from me, let me know!”

Wanting more info on college recommendation letters?

Learn how to solicit solid counselor recommendation letters.

Discover how a little effort yields the best guidance counselor recos.


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Author: Lauren

Lauren is a college student, double majoring in Economics and Psychology.