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How to Ask for a College Recommendation Letter

by Bethany Goldszer | Last Updated: June 3, 2020

College recommendation letters are important in the college admissions process. The recommendation letter provides social proof or verification of the information you provide in your college application. Also, the college recommendation letter gives dimension to your high school academic record. A good recommendation letter can strengthen your application (it won’t be the sole reason a student is admitted). However, a weak recommendation letter can almost certainly ruin your chances of admission. This year, for the 2020-2021 admissions cycle, with many schools going test-option, more emphasis will be placed on recommendation letters. Therefore, you must ask the right person to write your recommendation letter.

Who Should I Ask to Write My Recommendation Letter?

Most colleges require at least two letters of recommendation via an admissions portal like the Common App or Coalition App. By default, your guidance counselor will write a letter of recommendation for you. You’ll need to ask an academic teacher, one that teaches English, math, science, social studies, or foreign language, to write another. If a third letter is needed, it can be written by a second teacher, an employer, or someone else who knows you well. The best recommenders will be able to speak about your academic performance, motivation, growth, and promise for college. When deciding what teacher to ask for a recommendation letter, you should not think about any of the following:

  • What teacher is the best writer?
  • Who is my favorite teacher?
  • By whom am I most favored?

Focusing on these questions can be a recipe for disaster. Teachers who your peers know to be the best writers or favored teachers are highly sought after recommendation writers. These teachers get overwhelmed with requests from students. So often, they end up writing generic letters or may wait until the last minute to submit your letter, or worse – they don’t submit it at all.

Don’t Ask the Wrong Teacher

Sadly, I’ve heard all of the above happening many times. You also have to worry if your teacher writes your classmate a more persuasive letter, but an uninspiring letter for you. Colleges consider weak recommendation letters as a red flag. To explain what I mean, I like to use the example of an Amazon.com review. When looking at two similar products, we likely use the reviews to decide which to buy. In the context of college admissions, for the teacher writing a recommendation letter for two classmates applying to the same college, if you do not get a better letter of recommendation, this could make the difference between getting admitted or being declined. For this reason, it may be helpful to find out from classmates both the colleges they are applying to, and who they have asked to write their recommendation letter.

To avoid any drama when it comes to your letter of recommendation, I advise you to ask the “underrated” teachers to write one for you. You may be asking yourself, what does she mean? I mean that you should consider asking the teacher who isn’t necessarily your favorite teacher, or the most favored teacher. But the teacher who’s class you worked hard to make a good grade. Or the classes you struggled in, but ultimately pulled off a good grade. The underrated teacher won’t be overwhelmed with letters of recommendation requests and is more in a position to be a strong advocate for you. I’ve helped my students approach it from this angle every year, and we have high acceptance rates (100% in this application cycle).

How to Ask for a Recommendation Letter?

The best time to ask for a recommendation letter is during the spring of junior year. If you wait too late, your teacher may say no if they already committed to many other students.

When you approach your teacher (or email your teacher during the age of COVID-19), you should:

  • Express your interest in attending college.
  • Inform them of colleges you’d like to apply to.
  • Ask them if they would consider writing a recommendation letter for you.
  • Attach your resume (find a sample template here), as well as a brag sheet, they can refer to as they write.

Sample Email Requesting a Letter of Recommendation

Dear Teacher,

I am excited to share that I will be applying to college this coming fall. I have created a list of schools and have my sights set on the University of Buffalo, Marist College, Connecticut College, and Haverford College. I am hoping that you can write a recommendation letter on my behalf. To assist you in writing the letter, I have attached a copy of my resume and a brag sheet I filled out.

If you have any questions, please let me know. Thank you in advance for your consideration.

Warm regards,

Student

Conclusion + Next Steps

Now you know who you should ask to write your college recommendation letters and how to ask them to write it. Again, be sure that once you know who to ask, that you ask them as soon as possible. Also, send them your brag sheet and resume at least 6-weeks before applications are due.

After teachers and guidance counselor submit your letter of recommendation, don’t forget to thank them.

Which teachers will you be asking to write recommendation letters for you? Share in the comments below.

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