Let’s face it: asking for a recommendation letter can be awkward. You know you’re asking someone to invest time and effort on your behalf, and that can be uncomfortable. But these letters — usually two from teachers and one from a guidance counselor are required — are unfortunately a major part of your college apps and, thus, necessary evils.
Luckily, there are some hard and fast rules you can follow to make the process less painful and ensure you get the kind of letters you want. Let’s go over them now:
1. Ask for your teacher recommendation letters after the first full week of school has finished.
Teachers, like students, are unusually busy and sometimes overwhelmed during the first days of the new school year, so you don’t want to add to their workload. Give them a chance to get the year under way before you ask for a favor.
But, don’t wait too long, either. I’ve had students tell me that teachers can get overloaded with recommendation letter requests and set a limit for how many they’ll write. So you want to make sure you get your request in early.
2. Choose recommenders who know you well.
These are the teachers who pointed out how you used a math formula in a different way or made them see Frankenstein’s monster in a unique light. You’ve gone on class trips together. You’ve helped them in the classroom. You’ve gone to them for extra help. They’ve seen you try, they’ve seen you fail, they’ve seen you succeed.
Keep in mind, you don’t need to be a superstar in a teacher’s subject to ask for a recommendation. In fact, if you’ve steadily improved in their classroom even as you’ve struggled with the subject matter (I’m looking at you, physics 101), that speaks volumes too. It can even serve to acknowledge parts of your transcript that aren’t the most stellar.
Similarly, if you need a recommendation letter from a community member (some colleges do require this), choose someone who really knows you. If the CEO of the hospital agrees to write your letter, it’s not going to do you much good if she knows nothing about you. You’re much better off asking the mom you’ve babysat for years for — particularly if she is a good writer.
As for your guidance counselor recommendation, that can be tricky since, so often, guidance counselors are in charge of hundreds of students and might not be able to pick you out of a lineup. Suggestion? Find out their favorite kind of Starbucks coffee (complete with whipping and hazelnut syrup if it applies) and deliver that as you make your request. It’s a small token, but it can be memorable. When you’re there, ask if you might be able to meet with them for 10 minutes at a time convenient for them to tell them more about yourself. Then see Tip No. 4 re: a “brag sheet.”
3. Choose teacher recommenders who taught you in your junior year or will teach you in your senior year in core subjects.
Schools want to know who you are now, not who you were as a freshman. In fact, many schools will only accept letters of recommendation from teachers who taught you in your junior or senior years and in core subjects. Make sure you double-check your applications to see if that is the case — you definitely don’t want to find out at the last minute that you have a letter that won’t apply.
4. Don’t hesitate to remind your recommenders of the experiences you’ve had together.
Hand over a “brag sheet” at the same time that you gently ask for a letter of recommendation. The sheet (I recommend it be typed) will contain bulleted examples of anecdotes you’ve shared together. It will also tell them about your strengths, interests, values and whatever else that makes you, you. Make sure your brag sheets are somewhat different for each recommender — you won’t want three letters that are nearly identical.
5. Be clear where your letter should be submitted.
These days, letters of recommendation are often submitted online, instead of mailed snail mail-style. I recommend writing down (or emailing) directions for your recommenders so they know how to proceed. If necessary, walk them through the steps if they have questions — or offer to.
6. Give gentle reminders as your deadline approaches.
Especially if you’re applying early decision or early action, you know your deadlines are coming up all too quickly. If your recommendation letters aren’t written within three weeks of your deadline (the Common App, for example, shows you when your letter has been submitted), it’s time to give your recommenders a gentle nudge.
That can involve a lighthearted email or a friendly reminder after class. Given how much teachers have to do in a day, it’s very likely they’ve forgotten. So, gently and politely ask your recommenders if they need anymore more from you to finish up their letters.
7. Send a thoughtful, hand-written thank-you note.
Writing a good letter of recommendation takes time and effort. So at the very least, take time and make an effort to tell your recommenders what it’s meant to you to have their support. If you haven’t written a thank-you note before, click here for some tips.