Posted by Cynthia Miller Coffel, Ph.D

Feb 4, 2016 7:00:00 AM

It’s easy to put off one of the key steps in the college application process: asking teachers for letters of recommendation. You know that your grades, test scores, and college essays are important, and you’ve been working on those, but your letters of recommendation are important as well. You have it in your power to make sure these letters are great ones.  

Letters of recommendation tell the college what kind of worker you are, how you have grown as a learner, and how you have participated in the school community. Recommendations provide context for your transcript, essay, and standardized test scores. They are important because they provide a picture of you from particular people who know your work well.  

Read on to learn how to assure that your letters of recommendation are the best they can be. 

Laying the Groundwork 

The time to start asking teachers for letters of recommendation is the beginning of your senior year. Ideally, though, this shouldn’t be the first time the thought of college recommendation letters enters your mind. Work to build good relationships with your teachers and counselors from the beginning of your freshman year. Don’t be afraid to raise your hand in class, talk with teachers after class, or meet with them during office hours to clarify assignments and seek guidance.  

The teachers and counselors who get to know you during your junior year are particularly important, as we will discuss shortly. But your success throughout high school depends a great deal on your ability to communicate with educators and to self-advocate. Don’t wait until the last minute to practice these crucial skills. 


The process of asking teachers for recommendations begins with a little bit of research. First, find out how your high school and the colleges to which you are applying handle recommendations. Does the college provide forms for teachers to complete, or do they just want a letter? What part of the recommendation process is completed electronically? 

Second, read the directions on the college applications carefully. How many recommendations do you need? When is the earliest date that the letters should be received at the college? 

Third, decide whom to ask, when to ask, and how to ask. 

Whom to Ask  

Colleges often ask for two recommendations from teachers and one from a counselor. One of your teacher recommendations should be from a core subject teacher (a teacher of math, English, social studies, or science). Another teacher recommendation could be from a teacher who knows you outside of class (for example, a math teacher who runs the robotics club you belong to) or a teacher who specializes in a subject that you plan to focus on in college (for example, if you want to major in theatre, ask for a letter from the teacher who directs the school plays or musicals you’ve participated in). 

The teachers you choose should be people who have known you recently—in your junior year. You have changed and grown during your high school years, and a teacher who only knew you as a freshman will not be able to represent your work well. 

Choose teachers who like not just your charming personality but also your work in their class. That seems self-evident. 

But the teachers you choose should also be people who know you well. This is of key importance. In the letters of recommendation teachers write for you, they will need to tell a story with details providing evidence of your strengths. They will be writing recommendations for many students. If you have never raised your hand in class or had a private conversation with them, their recommendations will most likely be bland. If you have participated in their classes, talked to them after class, or gotten to know them through school clubs, sports, or community projects, they will be able to provide specific information about your intellectual growth, your ideas, and your personality. Being sure you know the teachers who recommend you, and helping them get to know you, is key to securing a good recommendation letter. 

When to Ask 

Know the earliest date the recommendations are due. Talk to your teachers about writing letters of recommendation a couple of months before the earliest deadline date. You want to give your teachers time to write the best letters they can. (And, of course, waiting until the last minute is both rude and stress-inducing to busy teachers.) Follow up two weeks before the deadline to make sure the recommendation letters have been sent. 

Don’t ask for letters right when your teachers are in the middle of grading midterm or final exams, and don’t ask right before vacations. You want them to be in a good frame of mine when they sit down to sing your praises.  

How to Ask 

Be sure to ask in person. No, it’s not okay to send teachers an email or text asking if they will write a recommendation for you, even if you know them well. No, it’s not okay to call. Ask if you can meet with them after class, or find a time during their break period when they may not be busy.  

It’s okay if you are nervous; your teachers will understand. Tell them how much you’ve enjoyed their classes and why—be complimentary but also sincere. Provide some details of your experiences in class. With 150200 students a year, teachers can find it challenging to remember specific details. The more information you provide, the more you will be able to influence what people might say about you in their recommendation letters.  

Tell the teachers what colleges you are applying to, perhaps mention the subjects you are most interested in studying in college, and ask politely if they would be willing to write you a good letter of recommendation. 

It’s important to ask if they can write a strong letter of recommendation. If they cannot write a truly positive letter, you don’t want them to do it. Teachers will rarely say no, but if they do, don’t feel bad. It is best to find a teacher who is truly enthusiastic about writing a good letter for you. 

If the teacher says yes, provide him or her with a folder of information that should make the job of writing a recommendation letter easier. The folder might include the following: 

  • Your resume or a list of your accomplishments, clubs you’ve been involved in, and/or places you have worked. 
  • Your college essay or personal statement to the college. 
  • A list of the colleges to which you are applying with their addresses and application deadlines. 
  • Recommendation forms, if the college requires them, and stamped envelopes addressed to the colleges to which you’re applying. On the recommendation forms, check the box that waives your right to read the recommendation. This shows the college that you have confidence that the letter will be a good one. 
  • Your contact information, in case the teacher has questions. 

It is okay to follow up with a professionally crafted email after your conversation to thank each teacher for agreeing to write the letter, confirming your discussion and the all-important deadlines. 

Don’t Forget to Say “Thank You” 

Finally, be sure to send handwritten letters of appreciation to the people who write recommendation letters for you. You can include one in the folder you give them when you ask for the letter, or send one once you have submitted your completed applications. Great letters of recommendation truly help you get into the school of your choice, so be sure to thank the people who write them!

Dr. Cynthia Miller Coffel is the author of Thinking Themselves Free: Research on the Literacy of Teen Mothers and co-author of the ninth edition of A Critical Handbook of Children's Literature. She has worked as a high school teacher, marketing writer, and assessment specialist at ACT, Inc., where she wrote English and reading assessments, curricula, and informative booklets for teachers.

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