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Last updated March 6, 2023

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Letters of Recommendation for College: A Guide

Key Takeaway

Letters of recommendation are an important part of your college application. Admissions officers read them to learn more about who you are in the classroom and in your community. We give a few tips for getting the best letters of recommendation possible.

Most colleges ask for one or more letters of recommendation from teachers. I read thousands of these during my eight years in admissions. Some of them stood out, but most did not. While you can’t dictate your letter to your teacher, I’ve laid out a few tips for asking for and earning a great letter of recommendation for college admissions purposes.

I want to define and explain the important terms so you’ll have a solid understanding of this piece of the admissions puzzle. And, as always, I’ll discuss the lesser-known reality of letters of recommendation.

How do letters of recommendation play into admissions?

Letters of recommendation are part of the qualitative “story” your application tells. Your GPA, SAT or ACT scores, and class rank offer a quantitative look at your level of academic achievement. Your activity section, essays, letters of recommendation, and additional information section fill out the narrative of who you are as an applicant–and who you might become on a college campus.

Most colleges ask for 1-3 letters of recommendation. Most typically, that is from your school counselor and one or two teachers. This warrants a quick discussion:

School counselors, also known as guidance counselors (although “school counselor” is the preferred term these days) or college counselors, write one letter. A common question, especially for students at larger public schools is, “what if I don’t know my school counselor?” Even if you don’t know your counselor well, they can still put your application in the context of your high school by discussing the rigor of your curriculum, courses offered at the school, majors changes to school policies, etc. The long and short of it is: don’t sweat it if you don’t know your school counselor well. Admission officers are used to it.

Teacher recommendations provide important academic context to the admissions office. Who are you as a student? How do you work independently or on group projects? Are you always the first to raise your hand, or are you a more contemplative student who speaks up only when you have something truly meaningful to contribute? It can be particularly helpful to ask for a teacher recommendation from a teacher in a discipline you are interested in studying in college. More on that in a bit.

Admission officers read your letters of recommendation (or, let’s be honest, probably skim them) to better understand you within the context of your school (counselor recommendation) and a classroom setting (teacher). They want to picture you as a member of their community. To that end, here are some recommendations to earning and getting great teacher recommendations.

How to get the best letters of recommendation possible

1. Be a great student

Can’t skip the obvious, right? If you skip class, bomb every quiz, and hit the substitute with a paper airplane, you probably won’t get a very good rec letter. You probably also aren’t on this website looking for college information…

But there’s more to it than that. Strong teacher recommendations often focus on interpersonal interactions. Perhaps the student regularly checks in with the teacher after class when a topic was unclear. Maybe you were a great leader of your group, or always ask probing questions, or respectfully debate your peers. Maybe you tutor others. Maybe you yourself after getting a C- on your first quiz showed the humility and resilience to study extra, find a tutor, and ace the next test.

You get the idea. Your teachers need something to say about you in order to write a standout recommendation.

2. You want the letter to tell a great story

Of course you can’t write the letter for your teacher or counselor. But you can nudge them with a reminder of a couple instances where you shined. How can you do this, you ask? Well…

3. Get your recommender on the right track with a “brag sheet”

A “brag sheet” is a standard way to give pertinent information to a recommender to help them out. It reminds them of your accomplishments both in and outside of the classroom. Since you create the brag sheet, it can nudge them in the right direction.

Remember, you want your college applications to be as cohesive as possible. I don’t want this to be overly stressful to you, but if there are small things you can do to keep your narrative on track, you might as well do them. So, if part of your narrative is that your love of science goes beyond the environmental science classroom and into the real world where you led nature walks for a local girl scout troop, you should mention this to your science teacher in your brag sheet. Or remind your AP US History teacher how you kept your group on track by setting up a shared spreadsheet… again, you get the idea.

4. If you’re applying to a STEM discipline, you need a STEM recommendation

…and a non-STEM recommendation too, ideally.

If you are applying to science, technology, engineering, or math disciplines, your application will benefit from having a recommendation from a teacher in one of these fields. They require some level of technical competency that these teachers are well positioned to highlight.

At the same time, you need a recommendation that can speak to soft skills. Think collaboration, cooperating, leading, debating, or even humor and poise. For most students applying to STEM disciplines, I recommend balancing their application with a STEM rec and a non-STEM rec, usually from an English or history teacher.

5. Ask for a letter of recommendation directly, and do so early

Finally, how to ask for a letter of recommendation. Typically, schools will request (and I strongly recommend) a recommendation from a teacher you had in your junior or senior year. Unless you’ve had your senior year teacher previously, you probably are going to ask a junior year teacher for a recommendation letter since they’ve had you in class recently and for a full year.

Here’s what my best-case scenario looks like for asking for a teacher letter of recommendation:

  • Ask them via email or in person for a few minutes of their time after or before school or at lunch to talk about your plan for applying to college.
  • Bring your brag sheet (printed or emailed, printed is great if possible) when you meet them. Let them know the types of schools you are interested in and feel free to ask for their input.
  • Directly ask, “would you mind writing me a letter of recommendation?”
  • Complement them and their class–after all, there’s a reason you are asking them specifically!
  • Finally, if they agree, add them as a recommender in the Common App. If deadlines are two-three weeks away and they haven’t sent the letter, a friendly nudge via email or in person is appropriate.

Now, not everyone is able to do this exact process and that’s totally fine. You know your teachers and your school. But, I hope this helps point you in the right direction.

A final point: this won’t be the last time you ask for a letter of recommendation. You will repeat this process when applying to internships, jobs, and perhaps graduate school. Learning this process now and getting comfortable with it will pay dividends in the future. Good luck out there!

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