How To Ask Your Teacher for a Letter of Recommendation

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How To Ask Your Teacher for a Letter of Recommendation

There is a right way and a wrong way to ask, so please keep reading!

.    Before I was a college counselor, I spent 15 years as a high school English teacher. During that time, I wrote many, MANY letters of recommendation for my students who were applying to college. Sadly, I can remember only about a dozen students who properly asked me to write their letter of recommendation—and I can count on one hand the number of students who properly thanked me afterwards.

.    While I loved my students and I greatly enjoyed writing these letters (English nerd that I am), the general lack of etiquette when it came time to request a college letter of recommendation blew my mind, year after year. I think that most students (even the savviest and most sensitive ones) took for granted the fact that just because they were required to have at least one, but usually two, letters of recommendation in order to
apply to college did NOT mean that their teachers were required to write them!

.    Requesting a letter of recommendation for college is a HUGE ask. These letters, if done correctly, take a lot of time to write, personalize, edit, rewrite, and submit. Think of the thought and care and many, many edits and revisions you put into your college essay—now multiply that process by 20, 30, sometimes even 50! That is the job with which you are tasking your teacher recommender: to write a letter so candid, original, information- and anecdote-filled that it perfectly captures the essence of who you are to every college admissions committee reading your application. (Oh, and you’re
asking your teacher to do this in their “spare time”—when they are not teaching, lesson planning, advising, moderating clubs/sports, conferencing, meeting, grading, and then trying to find some time to be a human outside of the hundreds of responsibilities demanded of them in school. Again, a HUGE ask.)

.    So, with this in mind, I encourage you to read through this list of “do’s” and “don’t’s” when it comes to asking your high school teacher for a college letter of recommendation. I believe that if you follow this etiquette, A) your teacher will be happy, and B) their happiness will translate into a stronger letter of recommendation for you. In this way, everybody wins.

  1. DON’T do the casual ask. Make it a more formal event. This doesn’t mean you need to court your teacher with flowers and chocolates, but it does mean you should come prepared (more on that later). It should be obvious to your teacher recommender that you have an important request to make of them, and you should most definitely have allocated an appropriate time to speak with them OUTSIDE OF CLASS to make this request. If the thought of working up enough courage to ask your teacher face-to-face to write this letter for you makes you feel massively anxious, you are not alone. Consider this (perhaps better) alternative
  2. DO write a formal email, politely requesting that your teacher be one of your college recommenders. Take the time to explain why you chose them, what you have enjoyed about their class, and how any/all of this translates into what you are looking for in your college experience. This is easier for the aspiring engineer who is asking their AP Calculus or AP Computer Science teacher for a recommendation; I imagine there would be so many examples of lessons, projects, and conversations you had in class that you could reference in your letter. But what if the budding engineer is asking his English teacher for a recommendation? Well, this is the time to do some soul-searching and think about what you have gained from this teacher and this course. Maybe you never thought of yourself as an English student, but the way this teacher has pushed you to attend writing conference periods with them and encouraged you to keep submitting revisions has made you a better writer than you ever dreamed possible. Maybe you are a shy student who never felt comfortable speaking up in class—until you found yourself in English 11, absolutely loving the atmosphere your teacher created where everyone is encouraged to voice their opinions. Whatever the case, tell your recommender! These details matter, and there is an excellent chance that what you tell your recommender will end up in your actual letter of recommendation. So, as Tom Cruise once said in Jerry Maguire: “Help me, help you!”. (Sorry, most of you are too young to get that reference. But trust me, it applies!)
  3. DON’T assume your teacher knows your deadlines. In addition to the personal request you make outside of class and/or the formal email you write, it is really important that you follow up with your teacher over the summer and in the fall. Your school’s counseling office likely has official forms for you and your recommenders to fill out, and it is your responsibility to make sure that all of that paperwork is taken care of in a timely fashion. You also should make your teacher aware of any imminent deadlines (for example, if you are applying to Wake Forest ED1 on July 1, your teacher needs to know that!) WELL IN ADVANCE of these deadlines. There is nothing worse than getting an email on a Friday that a recommendation letter is due on Sunday night. (Been there, done that, and while the letter gets written, it is sure to be less-than-stellar simply given the constraints.) Set your teacher up for success by reaching out at least 2-3 weeks ahead of any pressing deadlines, and you likely will be setting yourself up for success, as well.
  4. DO offer to provide your teacher with additional information that may help them as write their letter. A resume or activities list is usually appropriate; a college list could be helpful (especially if your teacher is an alum of any of these institutions). At the very least, ASK your teacher if there is any information they need from you. We really appreciate you looking out for us.
  5. DON’T forget to thank your teacher and let them know where you got in/are attending college! This is the craziest one, in my opinion. Students VERY RARELY let me know the decisions they received from the colleges on their list, even after I went to the trouble of writing their letter of recommendation. In a perfect world, a student would write an email (in the fall, if you got into your ED school; otherwise, the spring is appropriate since you will have heard back from all of your schools by then) thanking me for the time and effort I put into writing their letter, since that helped them get into [insert colleges]. I wish students knew, not only how hard we teachers work on these letters, but also how hard we are rooting for you! We want to hear about your successes; we want to congratulate you on a job well done! We became educators for this very reason: to make a bit of a difference in your lives by playing a small but significant role in helping you on your educational journey. Let us know how you did so we can properly celebrate you and your hard-earned success
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