How to ask for a letter of recommendation (guide for students)
Letters of recommendation are an important part of both the admissions and scholarship application processes. A letter of recommendation is a letter written by someone who knows you well as a student, generally a teacher or school counselor, that discusses your personality, achievements, and character.
A letter of recommendation is a story that is told about you and assesses you as a potential college student or scholarship applicant. In my experience as an admissions officer, I have ready perhaps 15,000 recommendation letters and as a college counselor have written 100+ letters.
Keep on reading to learn everything that you need to know about letters of recommendation, including how to ask for a letter of recommendation.
Jump ahead to:
- Why do letters of recommendation matter?
- How to ask for a letter of recommendation
- Next steps after your recommendation request
- Frequently asked questions
Why do letters of recommendation matter?
While a NACAC survey of admissions officers shows that the high school transcript and test scores are the most important factors for admission, letters of recommendation are considered among the next most important factors.
As grades and test scores provide admissions officers with quantitative data around a student’s achievement, recommendations provide a qualitative assessment of a student’s high school experience. As we will discuss, this is why it is important for your primary recommendations to be academic in nature. Most scholarships and colleges are going to be most interested in what your teachers and guidance counselors have to say.
How to ask for a letter of recommendation
Now that we have discussed what a letter of recommendation is and why they matter, let’s dive into how you can ask your teachers for a letter of recommendation.
Pick teachers from your junior year
College admissions officers are looking for recommendation letters that are more recent. This means that students should focus on teachers they had during junior year. Senior year can work too, but remember that you might not have enough time to get to know your teacher (this can be especially tricky if you intend to apply anywhere Early Decision or Early Action).
When you approach your teachers for recommendations, you should always frame it as a question and not assume that a teacher will write for you. I used to advice my high school students to email their teacher if they can chat with them briefly after class.
Focus on teachers that know you really well
One of the biggest mistakes that students make is only focusing on grades. Instead, think about the teachers who know you really well as a student. This is why it is so important to get to know your teachers inside and outside of class. A strong recommendation letter will not simply state that:
John was an A student and did well on his tests.
Instead, it will describe the type of scholar, thinker, researcher, and classmate you are. Remember, if your teachers write comments about you at the end of the semester or marking period, this can give you a glimpse of how they might talk about you.
Align your recommendation letters to your areas of academic interest
When college admissions officers are reading recommendations, they are imagining you as a student on their campus. Ideally, your recommendations should support your intended academic interest. For example, say you are an intended English major, at least one of your recommendations should be from an English teacher. If you are an aspiring engineer, you should have a recommendation from a math or science teacher, and so on. Generally, you should be seeking recommendation letters from teachers in two separate academic disciplines.
Ask your teachers by the end of junior year
Some teachers like to write recommendation letters over the summer, so it is a nice courtesy to ask them to write a recommendation letter before the summer starts. The other upside to this is that you will secure your recommendations early. Some teachers will have a “cap” on the number of recommendations they will write, so this will guarantee that you can secure recommendations from your top teachers.
Offer to provide additional information
A really smart move for students is to offer to sit down with their teacher or guidance counselor for a conversation before they write the recommendation. Some teachers or guidance counselors may even ask you to complete a questionnaire or survey. Either way, it is important to be clear that you are available to give them additional information.
Next steps after your recommendation request
Your work is not done after asking for your recommendations! There are still a few steps left!
Double-check to ensure that your recommendation is submitted
It’s always better to be safe than sorry. That’s why you should keep your eye on your status portals for scholarships or college admissions to ensure that your rec letters are submitted. If you are concerned that your recommendation has not been submitted, you can send your recommender a quick note to ask if they need anything else from you for the letter. This can be a good way to nudge your teacher or school counselor.
Don’t forget to thank your recommendations
Recommendations are time consuming, hard work. Be sure to send a thank you to your recommendation writers (bonus points for writing a hand-written thank you card!).
Frequently Asked Questions
Can I use the same recommendations for scholarships and admissions?
Generally yes! Unless the scholarship or admissions application is asking for a very specific type of recommendation, you can use your letters of recommendation interchangeably.
How many recommendations should I ask for?
Generally, we advise students to ask for three recommendations: two teacher recommendations from teachers in different academic subjects and one school counselor recommendation. Additional recommendations are generally not necessary.
We know that some students may want to ask for a recommendation from a coach, mentor, spiritual leader, or work supervisor. This is fine, but should be treated as something that is optional. The really important recommendations to secure are the aforementioned two teacher recommendations and school counselor recommendation.