Six Tips For Getting Great Letters of Recommendation For College

One of the most important elements of your college application is the recommendation of a teacher. College admissions offices take these letters very seriously, and it is critical that you do your best to secure the best letters of recommendation possible.red apple for teacher

Some students assume that there is nothing they can do to ensure that the letters are glowing testimonials. While you can’t really expect to sit in the room looking over the shoulder of your teacher as he writes the letter, there are many things you can do to increase the likelihood that the teacher writes a strong letter that will impress admissions officers everywhere.

Here is a step-by-step guide for making sure your letters of recommendation (LORs) are the best they can be.

1. Get Organized
Talk to your guidance counselor or the secretary in the guidance office to find out how the school handles teacher recommendations. At some schools, the guidance office will submit the teacher recommendations from your file to colleges directly, along with your transcripts and the school report. At other schools, teachers are requested to send LORs directly to the colleges. Some schools manage recommendations electronically through software packages like Naviance, while others are using functions on the Common Application. The point is that you must know the procedures at your school before you even get started. And you need to follow those procedures, so as to make the lives of your teachers and counselors as easy as possible. With some teachers writing dozens of letters each year, the more you can make things easy for your teacher writing your letter, your diligence and kindness will reflected in their evaluation of you.

2. Decide Which Teachers Should Write your LORs
A good LOR tells a good story about the applicant. The story reflects the strengths—and perhaps a few weaknesses—of the candidate. A good letter contains some details, some examples, some bits of information that bring the candidate to life for the reader. And a good letter might also provide information about the student’s intellectual growth and development over time. Therefore you need to choose a teacher who knows you well to write your letter.

You also need to make sure that you choose at least one teacher in a core academic discipline. You are applying to college, not to a resort or a team or to a service club. Admissions officers want to know about your performance in and contributions to the classroom. If you like, you can add a second or third LOR from a band director, a coach, or the head of your youth group. These letters can help round you out as a person. But at least one LOR should be from an English, math, social studies, science, or foreign language teacher.

Finally, don’t assume that you should choose the teacher in whose class you are performing the best. Nor should it necessarily be the teacher of your favorite subject. As noted earlier, you need to identify the teacher who knows your work, who can tell some good stories, and who can highlight your positive personal qualities.

3. Establish a Relationship with Your Teachers
Well before you decide which teacher will write your LOR, you need to consider that a teacher will not know you very well unless you make an effort to get to know the teacher. Participate in class. Ask questions. Work hard. Go above and beyond what is required, to demonstrate your interest, your fortitude, your proficiency. Show up before or after school to ask questions, shoot the breeze, or comment about the course content. Express interest not only in the class, but in the teacher. Obviously, you will get along better with some teachers than with others. So focus your efforts on developing relationships with the teachers with whom you share some connection, some affinity.

4. Consider the Timing of Your Request for an LOR
Teachers are busy people. Don’t wait until the last moment to request an LOR. Don’t ask right after your midterm or final exam—when they are still grading stacks of papers. Don’t assume that teachers will write letters during school vacations (you don’t want to work during vacations, and your teachers don’t, either). Look at your own deadlines for your college applications, and consider requesting the LOR at least a couple of months before the deadline. Be considerate and respectful.

5. Pop the Question
When you meet with your teacher to request an LOR, you will likely be nervous. Try not to worry. Teachers field these requests all the time, and they expect to be asked. Consider making your request after school or during a teacher’s off period. Don’t make the request via email or over the telephone. Do it in person: it makes a better impression. Your question can go something likes this: “Ms. Baker, out of all my high school classes, I have enjoyed yours the most. I feel that I’ve learned a lot from you. I like the material we are learning, and I think you’re a great teacher. I also think you bring out the best in me. I would like to ask whether you would be willing to write a strong letter of recommendation for me as I apply to colleges this year. Of all my teachers, I think you know me best, and I’d be pleased if you would write my recommendation.” You want to be complimentary of the teacher, but you also want to convey a sense of pride in the work you have done in the class. Brown-nosing won’t work. But if you have built a good relationship with this teacher, he or she will be delighted to give you an enthusiastic “yes,” if you craft your request in this way.

6. Provide Your Teacher With Adequate Information

After your teacher answers an enthusiastic “yes!” to your request, you should present him with a slim folder with everything the teacher needs to fulfill your request. The folder will contain a variety of documents (see below) that will help him in writing a detailed letter filled with anecdotes about your skills and abilities. Presenting this folder immediately will convey how seriously you take the teacher—and the recommendation.
The folder should contain:

  • Your resume
  • Your personal statement, assuming you have completed it
  • A short “statement of purpose” that outlines the sort of college you hope to attend and why you think that sort of college would be best for you. Write one or two solid paragraphs. Make sure to focus on the academic issues related to your college choice, so that the teacher can provide specific information to support your application.
  • A full list of the colleges to which you are applying, including addresses, with application deadlines clearly stated. If you are applying to particular departments, scholarships, or other special programs, makes sure to clarify that information for the teacher.
  • The recommendation form or forms the teacher will need to complete (note this might be the form your high school uses, or it could be the form from the Common Application, or you might include the form from each individual college to which you are applying).
  • If the letter is to be turned in to the school guidance office, include an envelope in which the completed letter can be sent to the guidance office.
  • If the teacher has to send the letter directly to the college, include stamped, addressed envelopes for each college to which you are applying (make sure to clip these to the appropriate blank forms, to make it easy for the teacher to do the collating).
  • Your contact information, including phone number, home address, and email address, in case the writer has any questions.
  • A short note of personal thanks to express your appreciation.

FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS

How many recommendations do I need?
As in so many things in life, the priority here is on quality, not quantity. Generally most colleges want one counselor recommendation and one teacher recommendation. I advise my students to obtain two solid recommendations from teachers. One should be from a teacher in a core subject (math, English, science, social studies, or foreign language). The second can be from another core teacher, or from an elective teacher who knows you well or in an area that the student hopes to pursue in college (a budding actor needs a letter from the drama teacher, for example). In some cases, a third letter from a coach, a youth group leader, or some other adult who plays a significant role in the student’s life may be included. Admissions officers spend a total of about seven minutes reviewing an applicant’s file. A pile of letters that say essentially the same thing will be more of a hindrance than a help.

My Dad knows Senator Longbottom from my state. Should I get him to write me a recommendation?
Not unless Senator Longbottom knows you really well and can say something new, different, or eye-opening for the admissions committee that is not otherwise in your application. Gratuitous letters from bigwigs will not impress anyone. The admissions officers want to know first and foremost about your life in the classroom. Senator Longbottom is unlikely to have much to add on that score (unless he was your civics teacher before got himself elected!).

Can I request a recommendation letter via email?

No. Many high schools now have automated systems for requesting letters of recommendation. These are fine for processing and for making the lives of teachers and counselors easier. If your school uses such a system, you need to adapt your request to accommodate an electronic delivery system. But you should NOT request the recommendation this way. Make your request in person, then follow it up with the electronic request. A face-to-face request shows maturity and respect. An emailed request is wimpy.

What if my teacher turns down my request?
It happens very occasionally. Usually this happens only when a student does not carefully consider whom to ask in the first place. Reasons for rejection vary. Some teachers are too busy. Some teachers will not write letters for students they don’t know well. And some teachers are brutally honest: they will not write a letter unless they can write a strong, supportive one. You have little choice to respect the teacher’s decision and seek one from another. Don’t despair, however; a teacher who turns you down would be unlikely to have written a good recommendation, anyway. Better to opt for your second choice than to get a letter that is weak or (worse) negative.

Should I waive my right to see a letter of recommendation? Should it be strictly confidential?
A confidential letter is best. Some teachers will provide you with a copy, anyway. But it is better for the admissions officer to believe that the teacher is not sharing his or her comments with you directly. The teacher, too, should feel comfortable about being honest in the recommendation. Often the strongest letters are actually ones that include a couple of insights into the student’s relative weaknesses; these insights can help highlight a teacher’s strengths (plus, a letter that goes on and on with nothing but superlatives really doesn’t say much of anything). If you have chosen your recommender carefully, you need not fret that the letter will say something bad about you. So waive your right to see it, and give that letter an extra measure of weight in the eyes of the admissions officer who reads it.

How can I build a better relationship with my teachers before I ask them for a recommendation?
Thought it may seem somewhat surprising, teachers are human. They like it when students show an interest in them, and in what they are teaching. So engage with your teacher as a human, and as an instructor. Ask questions in class. Come after school or before school with a question (even if you know the answer—sometimes it helps just to get the teacher talking!). Express your thanks. On a day when you feel class was particularly good or the teacher was in fine form, tell her so. If you enjoyed a particular project or assignment, say so as you hand it in (don’t wait to complain about the grade after it is returned). You want to be an eager, conscientious student. But you don’t to be a tiresome brownnoser. If you find that you are forcing yourself to like the teacher or the subject matter, consider asking a different teacher to write your recommendation. Not only are teachers human, they are also able to smell a sycophantic toady a mile away.

How can I thank the writers of my recommendations?
As a former teacher, I’m tempted to say that you should buy them expensive gifts: Rolex watches come to mind. But the best form of gratitude is to act grateful. Write a thank you note (not an email—a handwritten note on a nice card) after you have confirmed that the colleges have received their letters. Make sure to let your recommenders know where you are accepted: run by their office between classes and share your good news, and say thanks for the recommendation. Write another nice note at the end of the year, just before graduation, to let them know how much you appreciate their help in getting you through high school and into college. And, if you really want to make a teacher’s day, week, month, or year, send him a note or two from college. Let them know how you’re doing. Share some good news. Relate what you are learning in college to something you learned in their classroom. Nothing warms a jaded teacher’s heart like a genuine note of thanks from a former student.

Mark Montgomery
Former Teacher and Writer of Recommendations
College Counselor

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About the Author

Mark is a leading educational consultant. His experience as a professor, college administrator, and youth mentor help him guide students from around the country and around the world.

37 Responses to “Six Tips For Getting Great Letters of Recommendation For College”

  1. Julie says:

    Great tips!

    In my opinion, the statement regarding developing honest and open relationships with teachers is key.

    An honest and complimentary recommendation from an instructor or two can nearly work ‘miracles’ for a prospective college student’s credibility rating. I know this is true, because I’ve experienced it myself!

  2. Delaney Kirk says:

    These tips would work for a college student wanting reference letters from his professors too! Thanks for sharing.

  3. markm says:

    Julie,
    You’re right about “miracles.” I’ve seen the opposite happen: students with seemingly great records who pay no attention to the recommendation–which has then sunk the candidate’s chances completely.

    And Delaney, you’re right! College students need to think about recommendations for grad school or employment in the same way.

    Thanks for commenting and for visiting my blog!

  4. anthea says:

    I want an example.

  5. Phil Miller says:

    As a guidance counselor myself, your message is right on. This is an excellent and to the point post about the letter of recommendation.

    Many times students ask me to write a letter on their behalf because the college requires me to fill out the School Report. I am most likely not the best person to do so. I don’t see them daily, not do I have the knowledge of them to write a quality letter. I unfortunatly have to process applications for about 80-100 seniors (who submit on average 5 applications), it is impossible for me to spend the time needed to write a quality letter for them.

    Great article. I will be directing students here.

  6. Mark says:

    Dear Phil,
    Thanks for your comment and kind words. Your workload is heavy: 400-500 letters of recommendation a year. Parents (and students!) need to recognize how burdensome this whole process is on schools, too. Unfortunately, too, budgets for guidance counseling has been on the decline in the past several years. I recently talked to a family whose high school has one college counselor for 680 seniors. Can you imagine?
    Anyway, thanks for all you do for your students, Phil.

  7. Lan says:

    Here are additional tips:

    According to one college website, you should “ask people who like you” to write recommendation letters (http://www.stanford.edu/dept/uga/application/freshman/evals.html). That piece of advice seems so obvious, but some teachers may write letters for good students because they feel obligated to do so. A letter written by a teacher that you truly connect with will be much better than a mechanical one written out of obligation.

    Ask teachers if they are confident of their ability to write you a strong letter of recommendation. Someone who is willing to write one may not necessarily be able to do the best job.

    Ask teachers if they would like you to provide them with a brief outline of your major strengths/achievements. These highlights give teachers a great starting point and serve as a “cheat sheet” they can use as they write your letter. Providing this outline might help your teacher to write about positive points that you plan to include elsewhere in your application. It helps if what you say in your application is directly supported by the teachers who are recommending you.

  8. Mark says:

    Lan,
    Thanks for the comment and for the additional helpful tips!

  9. sandrar says:

    Hi! I was surfing and found your blog post… nice! I love your blog. :) Cheers! Sandra. R.

  10. Sunny says:

    Thanks for valuable tips.
    It is endless journey to prepare for college admission.

  11. Mark says:

    Hello, Sunny. I’m glad you found these tips helpful. Good luck!

  12. Vivek says:

    it’s been two years since i completed my B.E in computer. Now one of the teacher who taught us core subject had left the college and joined the government job. And when i approached the department, the department said they cannot provide letterhead and the official stamp as the teacher is no longer associated with the college. But the teacher is ready to write me recommendation on letterhead of his current job. will the college accept the recommendation on the letterhead from the government institute my former teacher is currently working. and i really need his recommendation.

  13. Mark Montgomery says:

    Hello, Vivek
    The college will accept the recommendation from the teacher. The recommendation can come on the letterhead from the government institute. Make sure, however, that the person writing the recommendation (your former teacher) clearly states his role at the college you attended.
    Hope this helps.

  14. Jayne says:

    May I link your advice on my dual credit high school course page for my students to read?

  15. Mark Montgomery says:

    Absolutely! Please do! Thanks for asking!

  16. aabhasjung says:

    It is very effective site. Could u tell me how can we work together with international college coz i have educational consultancy and i don;t have any proper idea to link to college

  17. Mark Montgomery says:

    Hello.
    I don’t “work with” any colleges. I do not “represent” colleges. They do not pay me fees to promote them or to bring students to their gates. Rather, my associates and I are consultants: we work for and are paid by students and their families who want to find the best possible education for their students.
    That said, we do spend a significant amount of time (and money!) to visit campuses, get to know the programs and facilities, and to meet students, faculty, and administrators. This is what gives us an edge in providing excellent information to our clients.
    I hope this is helpful to you. Good luck.

  18. Kurt says:

    My teachers would like to mail the letters out now, but I won’t really officially apply until Dec 1. Will the college create a file on me even before I apply? Also, I am providing addressed envelopes to the teachers. What return address do I use. I opted to not be privy to the letters? Thanks

  19. Kevin says:

    If I would to write a recommendation letter for a private school, will the steps be any different?

    Thanks,
    Kevin

  20. Mark Montgomery says:

    Hi, Kevin. No different at all. Good luck.

  21. Hello,

    Colleges do tend to create a file of materials they receive before applications come in. More than likely, your letters will be matched up to your application when it comes in. For the return address, it is fine to put your own or put the name of the teacher and the address of the school.

    Katherine Price
    Senior Associate

  22. Amy says:

    For entrance to a private high school. Teachers have been asked to write the recommendation letters already. I would like to write a “cover letter” I guess you would call it to sum up the request. Can the hopes for a positive letter be included. I know teachers chosen love my son but I am nervous.
    Thank you in advance for your response
    Amy

  23. Amy,
    Sending a cover letter to your child’s teacher to express your desire for them to write a positive recommendation is a fine idea. As a parent, you have a serious stake in where your child attends high school. Remember, though, that the tone of the communication is important. You don’t want to sound too demanding and put off the teachers who will be recommending your child. You simply want to express your hope that they will write a positive recommendation because admission to the private school is important to you and to your child.

  24. lonny says:

    lonny,
    I was wondering I am applying for colleges in the hopes of majoring in Graphic design. Yes I have taken the classes for graphic design but I don’t have a buddy relationship with them or see them all the time. I already plan on asking my social studies teacher which i have a close relationship with but should i consider asking another form of art teacher that i know well now or try the teacher that focuses on computers and graphic design?
    Thanks

  25. Hello,

    You can include a recommendation from both the art and graphic design teachers? If you think they are not going to write you a good letter, then the art teacher should be sufficient. You can also ask your art teacher to comment on your graphic design abilities.

    Katherine Price
    Senior Associate

  26. Paing Lin says:

    I’m currently having problems with asking a strong recommendation from a teacher. I took AP Psychology during my Junior year, and passed with a 5 but i got a B and a B- on my semester grade. Since i don’t participate much in this class, i’m faced with a problem on whether i should ask the teacher to write a recommendation for me or not. I would be happy enough to get advice and opinion on this issue. This was the only social studies class on my junior year.

  27. When trying to figure out which teacher to pick, you should always ask yourself, “Who will write me the most positive recommendation?” Do you feel like your AP Psych teacher had a good sense of who you are and had a good impression of you as a student even though you didn’t get an A? Sometimes, the best recs come from teachers who taught you in a class where you didn’t get the best grade but where, perhaps, the teacher saw you make significant progress or a strong effort. If you think that you weren’t much of a presence in your AP Psych class and that your teacher won’t have much to say, then maybe, that teacher isn’t the best one to ask. If you don’t have any other teachers who you feel might write a stronger recommendation, then be sure when you ask your AP Psych teacher to write you a rec that you ask him or her if he or she will write you a positive recommendation. Most teachers will indicate if they won’t write you a good one and then you’ll know to move on to someone else.

  28. Marcia Buxman says:

    Mark,

    As a high school teacher whose side job, it seems, is writing letters of recomendation, I appreciate your complete advice to seniors. May our school include a link to your article at our Senior Night?

    Marcia

  29. Mark Montgomery says:

    Hi, Marcia. I’d be honored. Please do! Thanks.
    Mark

  30. Rain says:

    Hi Mark,

    I take “AP” Russian at my school and I would like an LOR from my teacher in that class because the class certainly stands out, but I genuinely feel that my Honors English (not AP) teacher could write a stronger letter for me because I talked with her more and participated in her class more often. Do you think it is worth it/appropriate to politely take back my request and ask my English teacher instead– especially over the summer, when my English teacher has several LORs to write? My grades are consistently high in both classes but as I mentioned before, I have more faith in my English participation than that of my AP Russian class. (although I did present a few projects in Russian that my teacher really liked… perhaps the class was just less memorable for me haha.)

    Thanks for the tips in your article!

  31. Rain says:

    Sorry to comment again, but my AP Russian teacher also has significantly less LORs to write than my English teacher.

  32. Mark Montgomery says:

    Hi, Rain.
    This is an easy one. Have both teachers write recommendations for you. Most colleges allow you to submit two (and some will accept more than two!). If the college accepts only one, then you can decide which should be sent (it sounds like you’d send the literature teacher’s letter).
    Hope that helps!
    Mark

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