How to Ask (and Get) a Powerful Letter of Recommendation

Getting great letters of recommendation but need help with college apps? Check out our College Application Boot Camp to submit your best college application.

Colleges, scholarships, and even some academic clubs will often require you to ask for and supply a letter of recommendation from a teacher along with your application. 

Think of it as an academic reference: these people, who have seen and taught you for at least one year, know your scholarly capabilities.

Your teachers can best attest to your strengths as a student, and their recommendation can go a long way in getting you admitted.

However, asking for a recommendation can be anxiety-inducing; after all, you’re asking an authority figure to vouch for you in your academic pursuits.

Luckily enough for you, most, if not all, teachers are more than happy to help. 

This article will detail a step-by-step guide on how to request a recommendation letter.

Who to Ask?

You’ve likely had many teachers throughout school, and in high school, you’ve likely had several teachers each year.

If that’s the case, you have a lot of people to choose from, but colleges often only ask for 1-3 recommendation letters. So, who to choose?

Ask Teachers Who Know You Best

While you might initially want to ask teachers who gave you the highest grades, you must think about what work you did in the classroom before.

If you didn’t speak much and just sat in the back of the class during those classes, your teacher might not have much to say about you that couldn’t be inferred by transcripts.

  • Instead, you should go for teachers who best know your personality, ambitions, and work ethic.
  • These teachers are more likely to be enthusiastic about helping you out, and can probably craft a genuine, compelling letter of recommendation.

Some types of teachers you may want to keep in mind when considering who to ask include:

Any teacher you have had for several different classes can be an excellent choice.

They’ve overseen your academic progress for a long time and can attest to your achievements and growth more than teachers who have only had you for one year or semester.

  • Any teacher that is in your intended field of study can make for a great recommender.
  • For instance, if you plan to pursue biochemistry on a pre-med track, your biology or chemistry teacher could be a strong contender, as they have probably seen your passion in the classroom.
  • Any class that you participated more than usual, talked to the teacher after class, or regularly asked questions in can show how dedicated you are to learning.
  • Even if you weren’t the top academic performer, the teacher may have recognized your tenacity and your strong work ethic – important qualities for a college student to have.

Whoever you choose, you need to be sure that they could write a great, personalized letter for you.

Know the Teacher’s Policy on Letters of Recommendation

While most just ask that you deliver your request (in person) in a timely manner, some teachers have unconventional policies.

  • For instance, my AP Literature teacher required students to write their own recommendation letter, and he would then read, edit, and go over the ghostwritten letter with you before submitting it to the university.

Other teachers may want you to go over your college plans during a free period or after school.

Others still may want you to read the completed letter and provide feedback. Make sure that you understand what your teacher wants from you and accommodate their requests.

Ask Junior-Year Teachers

For the best recommendations, you should probably approach teachers who have had you during your junior year, especially if you are applying Early Action.

Your senior year teachers likely don’t know you well enough to give an accurate recommendation, and sophomore teachers might have forgotten about a lot of your achievements in their classrooms. 

Junior year teachers, however, have had at least one full year with you, and your academic success is probably still fresh in their mind.

  • Also, junior year is a time where students start moving into more rigorous classes.
  • It probably looks better to send a recommendation letter from your Advanced Biology or AP U.S. History teacher than it would to send in one from your freshman English Composition class.

When to Ask for a Letter of Recommendation?

You should consider asking well before any deadlines.

Making sure that teachers have enough time to write and revise your letter of recommendation ensures that you’ll receive the best possible recommendation for them.

Try asking early, especially if you plan to ask your teachers from junior year.

  • That way, you’ll still be fresh in their mind in the upcoming months. You’re also likely to beat other students in your request, so they have more time to focus on your letter specifically.

Ask around August or September, or whenever the school year starts for you. That should give you enough time to consider which teachers best know you and can personally attest to your fit as a college student.

How to Ask

Now that you’ve decided who to ask, and you know you should ask at the beginning of the semester, you need to ask.

First, ask in person.

  • If you’re asking someone to spend unpaid time and effort on you so that you can be accepted to college, you should be as courteous as possible.
  • Asking someone in person is the only acceptable method.

You also shouldn’t rush asking in between classes or right before school – your teacher may want to talk about what your plans are for college.

They also may be interested in what specific things you might want to be included in your letter, like always staying after class or school to talk about new research and studies in your intended field.

So, with that in mind, you should follow some simple protocol:

Set an Appointment

Email or ask in person when would be a good time to drop by and talk.

Even the more in-depth conversations shouldn’t take more than 15 minutes, but neither you nor your teacher should feel rushed.

  • Likely, your teacher will have a free period for planning that you can drop by for, or they can stay after school for a little bit.

By asking in advance, you’ve set aside a little time where your teacher can focus on you.

Dropping by unannounced could catch your teacher off guard, especially if they are in the middle of planning lessons or grading tests that need to get in. Planning ahead keeps either of you from being distracted.

Ask Your Question Politely

While asking for recommendations can be anxiety-inducing, remember that high school teachers are often used to this.

If your teacher has been at the school for a while, it’s likely that they’ve given a number of recommendations to many students, and they’ll likely be flattered that you asked them.

  • Remember to preface your request by telling them that you really enjoyed their class and that you learned a lot from them.
  • If you think you need a brushing up on politeness, do read up on etiquette.
  • Let them know that you’re applying to college and that you’d be grateful if they would write a letter of recommendation for you.

If this is a teacher who has really made an impact on your education in high school, they’ll likely be happy to write one for you.

If, for any reason, they decline, remember to thank them for their time. There are more teachers that would gladly write a recommendation for you.

Need college application help? Check out our College Application Boot Camp. Your first session is free.

Let Them Know More about You

If they’ve agreed to write a recommendation for you, it’s time to let them know a little more about what you need and what you’d like in your recommendation.

Teachers will likely appreciate a little guidance while writing your letter of recommendation.

  • First, let them know about any deadlines they need to meet, or how to submit the recommendation letter.
  • If you’ve asked early enough, they won’t have to worry about the deadline for a while, but they’ll have a better understanding of how much time they have.

Then, provide them with a little information about yourself. Let them know why you’ve chosen X college(s), what you’re planning to major in, and what your vocational aspirations are.

This will give them a little context to the type of program you’ll enter, and what kind of accomplishments or attributes to emphasize.

  • If there are any specific experiences with that teacher that really impacted you, be sure to remind them of that, and also let them know how you felt about that experience.

Anything that your teacher can personally draw on will likely set your application apart from the rest. 

Then, if there are any general accomplishments that you’re proud of – GPA, SAT scores, leadership positions, etc. – that you’d like them to include, be sure to let them know.

Having a better understanding of your academic progress will better inform their recommendation.

After Asking

Remember to always thank them for agreeing to write a recommendation letter before you leave, but you should also thank them after the meeting as well.

Within the next 48 hours, email them a quick thank you. It can look something like this:

 Dear Mr./Mrs. [Last Name],

I just wanted to thank you again for taking the time to talk with me about my recommendation letter. I really enjoyed speaking with you the other day. If there’s any more information you need, please let me know!

Sincerely,

[Your Name]

If the deadline is quickly approaching and they haven’t submitted the application yet, send a follow-up email a week or two in advance. That way, they still will have enough time to upload it. 

  • Once they’ve uploaded their letter of recommendation, be sure to send them a thank you note.
  • This time, however, send them a physical card with your thank you.

Some students give small gifts to their teachers as well. Whatever works for you, make sure that they know just how much you appreciate their time and effort for your sake.

Of course, once you’re admitted to the college or colleges you needed the recommendation letter for, be sure to drop by their classroom and let them know how your applications went and where you’re planning on going.

Additional Tips for Powerful Letters of Recommendation

Here are some additional tips that will help you get the best recommendation letter.

The beauty of these tips is that you are in control of all of them. The ball is in your court.

We strongly advise you follow these tips.

Request Well in Advance

At an absolute minimum, you should ask for letters of recommendation a week before you plan to submit the application. A month’s notice, however, is preferable.

Some teachers, particularly those who are popular with students, are inundated with requests for letters of recommendation.

  • It’s a good idea to ask before the letters pile up.
  • This may lead to a more thoughtful and thorough recommendation than if the teacher sits down to write ten letters at once.

Additionally, your teacher will appreciate that you have requested the letter well in advance, and this may result in more time and effort spent on the recommendation.

Remember that teachers are extremely busy and aren’t required to write letters of recommendation. It’s polite and considerate to give the teacher advance notice and to express gratitude for the teacher’s willingness to write the letter.

Plus, this will help you stand out—in a good way—in the teacher’s mind.

Provide a Resume

You should provide teachers and other recommenders with a resume, or “brag sheet.”

The resume is not only extremely helpful for the letter writer, but it also ensures that the letter of recommendation will be accurate and thorough.

It will also include some information that you deem particularly important.

On the resume, you should list:

  • Interests, including potential major and/or career field
  • The accomplishments of which you’re proudest
  • Leadership roles
  • Volunteer work
  • Any particular challenges you’ve overcome
  • Basic stats, such as GPA and class rank
  • A list of accomplishments specific to this teacher’s class
  • Anything interesting or unique that could be included in the letter

It’s also a good idea to include a particularly excellent work sample from the teacher’s class, if possible. You don’t want the letter of recommendation to simply regurgitate all of the information found elsewhere in your application.

It should also mention specifics about how you performed in and contributed to the teacher’s class.

Always Follow Up

Once your teacher has agreed to write a letter of recommendation, it’s important that you don’t excessively ask your teacher when the recommendation will be completed. Don’t be pushy or demanding about the letter.

This is impolite, and it could also impact the teacher’s recommendation. Remember, we want to get a great college recommendation letter, not one that is rushed to your detriment.

  • However, it is appropriate to politely follow up after a week has passed. You can say something like, “I was wondering if you had a chance to write my letter of recommendation yet?”
  • If the teacher says no, you can remind them of the deadline with a statement such as, “No problem, the deadline isn’t until [insert deadline here].”

It is possible for your teacher to forget about the letter of recommendation, need more time, or even have an emergency situation arise.

This is another reason it’s important to request the letter of recommendation well in advance.

Following up after a week has passed is a polite and appropriate way to check on the status of the letter and provide the teacher with a friendly reminder.

Always Waive FERPA Rights

On the Common Application and most other college applications, students are asked if they want to waive their right to view their college recommendation letters.

This question exists because of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), which allows college students to request access to their recommendation letters after enrolling in a college.

FERPA does not give students the right to see the letters before they are sent.

  • It’s best to check “Yes” and waive this right. Admissions officers give more weight to letters of recommendation that they believe to be candid, honest, and confidential.
  • If you don’t waive your FERPA right, it may appear that you expect a less-than-enthusiastic recommendation or don’t trust your recommender.

Your recommender will also know whether you waive your FERPA right, and knowing that you may read the letter at some point could result in the recommender writing a more generic, less personal letter that will ultimately be less convincing to admissions officers.

In fact, the Common Application states:

“Waiving your right lets colleges know that you will never try to read your recommendations. That, in turn, reassures colleges that your recommenders have provided support that is candid and truthful. While you are free to respond as you wish, if you choose not to waive your right, some recommenders may decline your request, and some colleges may disregard letters submitted on your behalf.”

Overall, it’s best to waive the FERPA right. And once you are enrolled in a college or university, you’re unlikely to be concerned about what Mr. Watson wrote about you last fall.

Some recommenders may choose to share their letter of recommendation with you or ask for feedback, but this depends on the person. Do not ask or pressure your recommender to see the letter.

This can send the message that you don’t trust the person to write a strong letter, and it can make the recommender uncomfortable.

What Do Teachers and Professors Think?

Dr. Talya Miron-Shatz, A Princeton graduate, former Wharton lecturer, and CEO of Buddy&Soul:

Give me a reason to do it: professors teach hundreds of students. Mention something about my class so I know you actually cared. A student recently asked for a recommendation. She said she was so flattered when, years after she graduated, she met me on campus and I recognized her by name. That established an immediate connection and commitment.

Share the passion: Tell me why you absolutely have to get into this program, how terrific it is, what a difference it will make in your life, and what difference you will make in the world. Or at least one or two of the above.

Cover all practical aspects: include your CV, supporting materials, the deadline, and the link where the recommendation needs to be submitted.

Adam Cole, Co-Director of Grant Park Academy of the Arts:

The most important thing a student can do when asking for a letter of recommendation is to check with that teacher to be sure they are able to give them a good one. Often the students and their parents will never see the recommendation before or after it is submitted, and will not be able to decide whether it’s a good match.

If a teacher agrees to write a letter, it’s no guarantee that it will be enthusiastic or even positive, and a lukewarm or mixed recommendation could mean the difference between getting in and not.

Simply ask the question, “Would you be able and willing to write me a good recommendation for ____________?” In some cases, the teacher might be willing but may not have the expertise to recommend the student for the thing they are applying (i.e. – a music teacher might be a poor choice to recommend an athlete for a soccer scholarship).

In other cases, they might be able but unwilling because of personal issues, conflicts of interest, or ambivalence towards the student.

Dr. Kevin Howley, Professor of Media Studies at DePauw University:

There are no secrets. Rather, students must think strategically when approaching a potential reference. Above all, this means no last-minute requests. Instead, students should consult with teachers and advisers about the nature of the recommendation.

For instance, is the letter for a job? An internship? A graduate program? Then the student must consider who, among the various school personnel they interact with, is most qualified to speak to the applicant’s strengths and/or weaknesses.

Dr. Barbara Hong, a professor at Brigham Young University:

Ask from someone who is able to attest to your caliber and personality, not just someone whom you think would write you a “friendly neighborhood” letter. The letter has to give at least one specific example or scenario of why you deserve the recognition. If not, your letter will not tell who you are but just a generic bunch of positive adjectives.

Dr. Jean P. Crissien, a professor and author:

If they [the teacher or professor] might have a hard time remembering how sharp you are, extend a reminder. Send them a (good) paper that you wrote in their class and mention a specific part of the class that you found interesting.

The former will remind them of your skills while the latter is a subtle form of flattery that will endear you to them. Just make sure to no be too much of a sycophant.

Conclusion: Asking for a Letter of Recommendation

While it can be scary to ask, getting a great letter of recommendation from your teacher can really help boost your application. Of course, a positive recommendation is not the only part of the application process.

While your teacher is working on your letter, you should be drafting, redrafting, and revising your college essays, on top of studying hard and keeping track of your extracurricular activities.

Get the best college admissions help.

Check out our College Application Boot Camp. It features a 100% satisfaction rate.

Learn more ➜